John Hawkes is to an iron lung what Daniel Day-Lewis is to his” left foot.” In The Sessions, also starring Helen Hunt, Hawkes offers an Oscar winning performance, using little more than his facial expressions and succinct, moving dialogue. Not really knowing what to imagine, I went in to the film with few expectations and a great deal of curiosity. Based on the true story of Mark O’Brian a victim of polio tied most of his adult life to an iron lung, the film explores the desires of a man, who by all accounts feels everything, but can move little and does so with a poignant story and an exceptional cast.
O’Brian, as much as possible, lives a normal life. A witty, brilliant man, he earns degrees and writes. He goes to church, where he meets and befriends Father Brendan (William H. Macy), and longs for love – emotional and more importantly physical. Now in his thirties, Mark, a virgin wants to have sex. He feels, is capable of arousal, but can move nothing but his head, and just barely that. After firing an undesirable, gruff personal aid, he hires Amanda (Anika Martin), a kind-hearted, loving assistant, with whom he falls in love. Amanda, who does care deeply for Mark, bolts and he experiences his first broken heart. After hiring his next caretaker, Vera (Moon Bloodgood), Mark, with Vera and Brendan’s assistance seeks out a sex therapist to help him reach his physical goals. Enter Cheryl (Helen Hunt), a married, soccer mom, who makes a living helping others to find comfort in desire and to experience sexual satisfaction.
O’Brian’s story is both tragic and surprisingly optimistic and inspiring. Hawkes performance engages, engrosses and entertains. This one is as worthy as any other of his previous Oscar nominated offerings. Playing a man whose life consists of hours in an artificial lung and limited access to the outside world, seem effortless to him. Had I not known the actor, I would have sworn he indeed suffered from polio and was relegated to life on a gurney. Hunt and Macy and Bloodgood offer stellar supporting/starring roles to Hawkes. Hunt, nearly my age, reveals a fabulous body – this role calls for both leads to show far more that is typical. Macy’s Father Brendan displays a delightful sense of humor in light of the situation that demands a way of thinking contrary to Catholic beliefs.
The Sessions explores sexual desire in an untypical way, not because its star is severely disabled, but because it explores the issue of blatant sexual yearning for desire’s sake, without it ever allowing it to feel dirty or wrong. Even Mark’s priest gets on board (as only one in the movies and played by Macy could) with his plight to experience sexual gratification before his death. While the story, written by the film’s director Ben Lewin, is simple and unremarkable, its themes move the audience. It answers pertinent and embarrassing questions regarding disable persons and sex, not just by way of Mark, but other less-than-able bodied people provide details to him when he conducts interviews for an article he is writing. It further touches on the issue of the prickly path that plays out when pure physical desire encounters the inevitable emotions of the heart.
Both Hawkes and Hunt (certainly even more so) are courageous for their roles in The Sessions. The comedy/drama Hope Springs, out earlier this year, touches on adult sexuality too, but not as nakedly as does Lewin’s film, with or without the disability factor. In fact, few films have. The ending comes hurriedly and with far less satisfaction than I hoped. I am placing a B+ in my grade book. The cast offers A performances, but the film has its flaws.