A late starter learns well in ‘Sessions’
Updated: November 30, 2012 3:38PM
One of the year’s warmest and uplifting films — despite its impressive sidestepping of cheap sentimentality — “The Sessions,” which won the Audience Award and a Special Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance festival, is probably also the first to feature a romantic lead inside an iron lung.
It should also be the last, because nobody’s going to do this better.
Based on the life and writings of quadriplegic journalist and poet Mark O’Brien (who was also the subject of the 1996 Oscar-winning documentary short “Breathing Lessons”) “The Sessions” opens with him at the beginning of a life-changing and angst-ridden adventure. After falling in love with one of his caretakers, then scaring her away by proposing marriage, O’Brien (John Hawkes) begins to muse about love and sex — especially after he’s given an assignment to write about the sex lives of handicapped people in the Bay Area where he lives.
The painstakingly dedicated writer (he types one letter at a time with a pointer he holds in his mouth) is 39 years old when the film begins and he has spent the last 33, after being afflicted with polio as a child, in the iron chamber he can only leave for a few hours each day. He is still a virgin, never having had the opportunity to be with a woman, primarily because of his deep religious convictions, and marriage now seems impossible. So, he considers the idea of hiring a sex therapist to work with him. Though that process, while transformative, will turn out to be much more grueling, more physically and emotionally painful, than he could have imagined.
First, though, O’Brien feels he must secure the permission of his priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy in an especially nice performance). The request troubles the Father, but after thinking about it, and taking into account O’Brien’s belief that he won’t be alive much longer, he finally says “In my heart, I think God will give you a pass on this one.” After each session, O’Brien is wheeled down to the church for a debriefing by the priest, which soon has less to do with religion than guy-talk — much to the dismay of parishioners within hearing range.
In addition to sensitive, yet non-squishy direction by Ben Lewin (“The Favor, the Watch and the Very Large Fish”) — who also was stricken by polio as a child and who adapted this screenplay from a memoir by O’Brien and an article he wrote about his experiences with a sexual surrogate — “The Sessions” benefits from three very strong performances. From Hawkes, who communicates O’Brien’s sadness, loneliness and wry humor entirely from the shoulders up; from Macy, who radiates warmth and sad-eyed compassion as O’Brien’s priest; and from Helen Hunt as O’Brien’s suburbanite surrogate Cheryl, complete with a troubled marriage, a teenage son and station wagon. Hunt’s performance is remarkable, not only because she spends much of the film entirely unclothed, but because she conveys the tricky interpersonal balancing act required in her profession: maintaining an emotional distance while trying to establish a certain necessary level of intimacy. Until, that is, O’Brien predictably falls in love with her — and she, attracted by his gentleness, his agile mind and a love poem he composed for her, unpredictably begins to feel the same attraction. Well-deserved Oscar nominations seem likely for all three.
“The Sessions” tells a complicated story (perhaps you’ve noticed) which doesn’t end in a predictable manner, based as it is on messy, somewhat random real life. But the way it does end feels right — very right — if only because O’Brien seems satisfied himself, talking us through it in the whimsical, intelligent, soft-spoken, slightly sardonic and slightly nasal voice that defines his character throughout the film. It’s the voice of a man you’d do well to meet and one you’re likely to remember for quite a long time.