Sunday, October 28, 2012

Review: "The Sessions"

The Sessions is not the kind of story that I would expect to be so charming and humorous. And John Hawkes is definitely not the kind of actor that I would expect to evoke such empathy. Yet somehow, Ben Lewin's film is inspiring and life affirming. John Hawkes, who was tremendously scary in Winter's Bone (2010) and frightening in Martha Marcy May Marlene (2001), stars as Mark O'Brien, a man suffering from polio who seeks the help of a sex surrogate to learn to experience sex. John Hawkes gives the best performance of 2012 that I have thus far seen. Mark O'Brien is not a man looking for sympathy, and John Hawkes creates a character so full of life and ambition. Credit must be given to Ben Lewin, who also wrote the screenplay (based on a newspaper article by Mark O'Brien), for allowing the film to be about a man and not about his disease. The actors in the film, especially Helen Hunt, William H. Macy and Moon Bloodgood, are fully committed to their roles. The Sessions may be a film about a disabled man's desire to have sex, but through sheer honesty, it is about a man's quest to learn more about himself, which is what makes it so accessible. I did not feel like I was watching a feel good true story, and that is why I loved the film so much. Mark O'Brien is a man, not a disability, and The Sessions allows his story to be told without making it about his illness. Ben Lewin created a fantastic film, but it would not be possible without John Hawkes. The Sessions is a tour de force performance and I am taking note of his talent.

In 1988 Mark O'Brien (Hawkes) is a thirty-eight year old man who has been living with polio for more than two decades. He is unable to move the muscles below his neck and spends most of his time inside an iron lung. He hires a young, beautiful assistant (Annika Marks) and promptly falls in love with her. When he reveals that he is in love with her, she is unable to return his affection and quits. He hires the no nonsense Vera (Moon Bloodgood) to whom he has no immediate attraction. Mark works primarily as a writer, and he is asked by his editor to interview people about sex and the handicapped. Mark shares little in common with his interviewees, and he is eventually put in contact with Cheryl Cohen-Green (Helen Hunt), a sex surrogate. Throughout his life, Mark has been a devout Catholic. He befriends the new priest at his church, Father Brendan (William H. Macy), who helps Mark realize that it is okay for him to discover his sexuality with Cheryl. Mark is immediate drawn to Cheryl, and although she tries to keep things professional, she is also attracted to him.

1997 was the Year of Helen Hunt. She won the Golden Globe and Academy Award for Best Actress for As Good as It Gets and also won the Emmy Award for her role on Mad About You. Since then she has been unimpressive in What Women Want (2000) and Pay It Forward (2000). Helen Hunt acts through her face, using her delicate features to evoke empathy from the audience. Cheryl feels similar to Carol (As Good a It Gets), but there is certainly a lot more nudity! Hunt looks good for 49. While Hunt brings the same temperament to every role, I am not sure if another actress would have been a better choice. She gives Cheryl a necessary warmth that other actresses do not have. And while Argo ruins its good fortune by having a conceited and Hollywood-friendly ending, The Sessions, also based on true events, offers a credible and more inspiring ending. I have repeatedly voiced my displeasure with true stories, as they try too hard to tug at our heartstrings, but The Sessions treats its subject with integrity and allows for Mark O'Brien to be seen as a man and not a disease.

My rating: 4 stars out of 4.

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