A film that is being touted as a potential multiple Oscar winner, The Sessions will reward its viewers with its frank and funny portrayal of one man’s journey to enjoy one of the most fundamental of human experiences.
Mark O’Brien is a man in his forties, who has spent much of his life coping with the after effects of polio. He sleeps in an iron lung, and needs assistance with bathing, dressing and leaving his home.
Writer / director Ben Lewin has performed a remarkable balancing act: he handles his subject with honesty, respect and a wonderful sense of the absurd, without ever falling into the trap of playing his characters for cheap laughs or alternatively becoming overly maudlin. Perhaps it is his own experience as a former polio victim, or maybe his use of the writings of the real life Mark O’Brien, but however he has done it he has created a work of intelligence that might challenge audience preconceptions without feeling preachy.
O’Brien as played by John Hawkes is a master of self-deprecation, but is also capable of startling candor. Hawkes is wonderful in a role that actors should have been fighting each other to play. He spends the entire film lying crooked upon his back or being carted around as dead weight by various co-stars, but he nevers fails to convey the impression that he really has the physical limitations he is portraying. He is also utterly charming, and it beggars belief that there could be a single viewer who wouldn’t be in his corner throughout his story. His performance is all the more noteworthy when it is considered that he has only facial expressions and voice to enable it.
Helen Hunt has always seemed to be an actress capable of great things, but it seems unlikely she will surpass her turn as Cheryl the sex surrogate. Much has been made of the full frontal nudity, however it is the disarming frankness of Cheryl’s approach to the physical and spiritual obstacles to O’Brien’s goal that Lewin’s film relies most heavily upon, and this would not have worked without Hunt’s skill.
The supporting cast is led by the ever-reliable William H. Macy and Alan Arkin. Moon Bloodgood gets to stretch her legs as one of O’Brien’s carers, and is leant on by Lewin when momentarily he needs to lighten the tone. The success of The Sessions, however, is built on the foundation of Lewin’s approach to his subject, with the remainder resting mostly on the shoulders of Hawkes and Hunt.
Lewin paces his film almost perfectly before bringing things to a resounding and moving conclusion, and all within a sub-100-minute running time that proves – once again – that a film doesn’t have to be a three-hour epic to offer something of value. Highly recommended.