Life deals many of us some pretty crappy hands. The trick to dealing with much of it, as they say, is to have a good attitude. In the case of journalist Mark O’Brien, life handed him a spectacularly bum hand in the form of childhood polio. But you wouldn’t know it to talk to him as his positive outlook far outweighs both the iron lung he sleeps in and the paralyzing affect the disease had on him physically. After an 18 year absence from feature films director Ben Lewin takes the helm for The Sessions; a tender story that retells the time in O’Brien’s life when he researched/wrote one of his most provocative stories. The film doesn’t dance around sensitive subject matter, but it showcases lots of emotion and will likely be the most uplifting, though awkward, film of the year.
A flashback of a film, this story takes place in Berkeley, CA in 1988 and follows O’Brien while writing his story titled “Sex and the disabled“. To read the synopsis, The Sessions sounds like a bizarre film that finds “a man in an iron lung who wishes to lose his virginity contacts a professional sex surrogate with the help of his therapist and priest.” There’s a little more to it, but still, it sounds decidedly like it’s geared for and aimed at the art house crowd right? Well the heart and warmth that flesh out this story is something that everyone (age appropriate that is) will be able to take away from this candid and inspiring story. Beyond that, the performances are so good that you’d be hard pressed to recall roles where this off-beat cast have done finer work.
The people Mark meets and the interactions he has researching his story cause him to seek his own sexual awakening. He gathers a small but devoted group of confidantes just as determined as he is to get him “deflowered”. As Mark is paralyzed, his physical condition necessitates a medical assistant almost 24/7. He goes through many yet the one who hangs around is the tight lipped but steadfast woman Vera (a very unglamorous Moon Bloodgood) who literally wheels Mark’s gurney all around town. Mark attends church regularly and through a series of personal confessions this throwback travel log finds him confiding in a priest (William H. Macy) where he seeks approval from God to write this sensitive story. Macy, with a dry “man of God but out of his element” delivery provides the humorous and often hysterical side to the story in his conversations with the upbeat O’Brien. It counterbalances the frankness of Mark’s exchanges with Helen Hunt which gives this, at times, an almost sitcom level of relief but also grounds the story.
Cheryl (Helen Hunt) comes into Mark’s life as a sexual therapist/surrogate but one who specializes in working with disabled individuals. It’s been years since Hunt charmed us in her Oscar-winning turn in As Good As It Gets and this is without doubt the boldest and most daring thing she has ever done. She’s everything Mark could have ever wanted, only her time is limited with him and it’s kind of complicated as she’s a therapist with a family of her own (there’s definitely a sort of professional “don’t ask/don’t tell” understanding when at home with her husband played by Adam Arkin). Mark’s been sheltered a lot of his life and now basically Mark is a kid again finding out about his body and learning things about life he’s never experienced. Difficulties and complexities arise in these sessions because Mark begins to see Cheryl as as a multipurpose female; mother, sister, care giver and friend. Sex leads to love, or just the perception of it, which fosters the poetic side of Mark above and beyond the whole lot of mixed emotions.
The smart move on Lewin’s part, aside from the casting, is in the pacing, editing and scene composition. Like a veritable check system the film finds humor and wit inserted systematically to play off the tough and serious subject matter. We get equal and even handed time with both Macy and Hunt and the polar opposite discussions and scenes between the two of them is like watching a metronome. Mark goes back and forth between theoretical/common sense advice from Macy and the almost girlfriend Hunt. He’s confident talking to Macy but there’s a real shyness and retreating nature with Hunt that makes sense as Mark’s condition is so unique and inexperienced. It’s uncomfortable and totally foreign but the situations are bold, frank and unflinching as each of Mark’s “sessions” progress.
But the real tour de force is John Hawkes who shows why as a character actor he’s such a fan favorite and one of the most capable and actors currently working. The character Mark O’Brien has an effect on everyone he meets and Hawkes, assuming the role of the physically restricted journalist, absolutely kills the role. The tenderness and charismatic nature is hard to ignore and Hawkes’ turn is sure to be one of the most memorable this year, even if this isn’t an easy film for some to sit through (don’t worry, this isn’t a Shame level of uncomfortable). It’s challenging at times as this fly on the wall look at a life less ordinary is so strange, and that’s before any of Mark’s sessions which are even more so candid. But hearts go out to Mark because of his attitude and Hawkes’ performance; the two really become one and the same.
While sweet and charming, again thanks to the amazing performance from Hawkes, The Sessions is also very bold and kind of uncomfortable. Not just the subject matter but the frankness in the way it was presented (long takes, no music, etc.). In each of Mark’s “sessions” it’s about as, excuse the term, naked and uncomfortable a scene as you can get. But this look at a life few us us will know shows us again that truth is always stranger than fiction. Bitter-sweet overall, especially the ending, but the people O’Brien interacted with and his look on life is what really stands out more than any of the awkward encounters. The Sessions teeters between comedy and drama and is probably the best/only way to tell this story without becoming depressing and rather boring. One thing is for sure, whether or not the subject matter is agreeable with all audiences, Hawkes will impress and delight and could easily have an Oscar nod to look forward to this year.