“Maybe intercourse would prove that I’m an adult.”
There are times when movies are great and there are times when movies are bad and there are times when movies fall on some in-between spectrum, but what makes the medium of film so great is that everyone’s reactions can differ drastically from one another and from a general consensus. For instance, a movie that is considered bad can be seen as the worst film ever by one viewer, while another movie that is considered good, or even great, can be seen as a masterpiece by one particular person. The point of this brief Dr. Seuss-like philosophical waxing is to illustrate how the profession of critiquing films and the pastime of discussing and arguing about film is so immensely subjective; I viewed a screening of Ben Lewin’s drama, The Sessions, with my co-writer, Zack Sharf, and while my fellow critic would say that he undeniably loved the film, a reaction that many viewers of The Sessions have shared, I can definitively say that I not only loved it more than my good friend but that my fondness for the film reached a whole new degree of adoration that is going to be hard to compress into a single written review.
The Sessions tells the sympathetic tale of Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), a 30-something polio-stricken poet in the late 1980s who has managed to live a mostly successful life despite his appointment to an iron lung. A religious man, Mark approaches his priest (William H. Macy) to propose his desire to finally lose his virginity. Father Brendan becomes Mark’s confidant as he contacts, Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Helen Hunt), a professional sex surrogate who promises to bring Mark into manhood. With a cap of six sessions together, Mark and Cheryl walk through the stages of intimacy, foreplay, and eventually intercourse so that Mark’s desire can be fulfilled. This lively tale chronicles the bizarre relationship that Mark and Cheryl share and Mark’s growing feelings for Cheryl that start to make things complicated.
Where to begin with this film? The most obvious place would be with the indelible performances, but I’m going to hold back and save that for later. Let’s start with writer/director Ben Lewin. The Sessions marks Lewin’s first film as writer or director in nearly twenty years (his last credit was 1994’s Paperback Romance) but you would never guess that the filmmaker had taken any kind of hiatus. As a director, his style is thoughtful and delicate. His gentle camera placement always seeks to make Hawkes’ Mark, a man so crippled and fragile and self-deprecating, appear favorable. Lewin gives O’Brien the presentation he deserves. Sequences that show Mark performing daily tasks like using the telephone or typing up a written piece, miscellaneous activities that we lucky and healthy humans take for granted, are expertly handled as we see the consistent struggle of this inspiring man who has decided to embrace the struggle as an inevitable to-do routine. Lewin’s writing, however, is even finer. Lewin’s narrow focus keeps the story active from start to finish without any extra or unnecessary add-ins and his dialogue is snappy, infused with a dry and witty sarcasm that many times registers as sardonic, especially when writing O’Brien’s own opinions of himself. When he changes to O’Brien’s vivid and dreamlike mind, the poetic proses are luscious and stimulating as if speaking directly to the heart and the emotions. It’s incredibly successful and, in my opinion, one of the better adapted screenplays of the year (Lewin adapted his script off of O’Brien’s own 1990 article).
Yet, the soup de jour of The Sessions is the dazzling trio of lead actors, two of which deliver spectacular career best performances. Those who know me well understand that I am a huge advocate for character-driven films and The Sessions is heavy in its character development and progressions; The Sessions is pretty much everything I want in a drama as the three leads, treating Lewin’s script more as a stage play than a screenplay, are vibrant and, for lack of a better word, perfect. William H. Macy garners some deserving laughs as the progressive priest who blesses Mark’s desire to lose his V-card and promises him that God will give him a pass in this extraordinary circumstance. As for Helen Hunt, the film might as well be subtitled, The Sessions: Proving that Helen Hunt Still Exists and is Actually Better Than We Remember. As the former-titular character (The Sessions was originally titled The Surrogate), Hunt is truly magnificent and unafraid to show off her surprisingly quality body (most of Hunt’s scenes are between her and Hawkes’ Mark during their sex sessions). As stated before, these scenes are intimate and are the highlights of the film (another point to Lewin’s script). Their conversations are frank, but it’s in these flirtatiously based scenes that we get the most characterization. Emotions and feelings run rampant here, especially as the film nears its third act, and Hunt is astounding every time. Bottom line, Hunt has never given a better performance and I would be shocked if a Best Supporting Actress nomination was not in the bag. Her practiced Massachusetts accent and literal full body commitment to her character of Cheryl is just the beginning of her role undertaking.
But, in the end, The Sessions belongs to no one more than lead actor John Hawkes. Slowly but surely piercing his way through the character actor bubble, Hawkes departed from television roles in Deadwood and Eastbound & Down and has come into his own in films like Winter’s Bone, which earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, the upcoming Spielberg biopic, Lincoln, and this full frontal indie which has granted him the role of a lifetime. Though I’ve followed Hawkes for years now, it’s quite possible that Mark O’Brien will result in Hawkes’ full breakthrough. To say that Hawkes’ performance is revelatory would be a huge understatement, the actor’s turn as Mark O’Brien is one of the finest performances of the year and easily Hawkes’ best to date. For the actor, O’Brien provides a challenge in that Hawkes literally cannot move anything other than his head and he is either lying in a bed, an iron lung, or on a stretcher for the film’s entirety (reminiscent of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), and Hawkesmore than perfects the actions of the adroit O’Brien, a man who developed innovative ways of getting by on his own. Like the real O’Brien, Hawkes props himself up so that he lies on his tailbone and his shoulder blades as if a wedge had been placed at the center of his spine; it’s a painful position for any person to hold but Hawkes makes it look so easy. The malignant emotions that have been just as crippling to O’Brien’s psyche as polio has been to his body are clearly exposed in a multitude of capacities through Hawkes’ tender performance, especially in a depressing scene where he expresses his true feelings to a girl he’s come to know, or a tense one where he drops his operating stick that extends from his mouth to the telephone. In a total departure from the gritty Winter’s Bone, Hawkes wows audiences again in what is sure to be an award nominating performance.
For me, Ben Lewin’s The Sessions is an absolutely marvelous film filled with heart, humor, and realism buoyed by knockout performances and a sensitive touch by Lewin not only behind the camera but also with the pen too. As a deep feeling of love rippled through the film, I realized that I was watching a film that happened to be uplifting and heartwarming as well as soul crushing and tragic simultaneously. It’s a perfectly balanced, paced, and focused film that left me humbled and paralyzed by its grace, just as the polio had relegated Mark to his outdoor stretcher and iron lung. In an easy 95 minutes, Ben Lewin makes us feel the plight of an innocent man whom God chose to make his life extra difficult just so that when he succeeds, the joy that he and those around him feels is maximized. The Sessions is highly personal, vibrant, and successful, and it’s one of the most human films I’ve seen recently, one that actually brought me to tears by its ending credits. The Sessions views love as a journey through the poetry of life, and I view The Sessions as one of the year’s best films.
“Today I hope you see a man upon the stage,” hopes Mark O’Brien at the film’s start. By the film’s end I had seen the complete and total portrait of one of the bravest individuals succeed in accomplishing his greatest struggle: To become a man.
Review by Mike Murphy