“The Sessions” should be the downer movie of the year. But the story of a severely disabled man who wants to explore his sexuality, before, as he says, his “use by” date, is funny, passionate and bawdy.
Based on the life of poet Mark O’Brien (played in the movie by John Hawkes) “The Sessions” sees a man who can’t move have a sexual awakening with some unlikely advice from his priest (William H. Macy) and the help of a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt).
“The Sessions” doesn’t reinvent the narrative wheel, things progress pretty much as you imagine they might, but as obvious as some elements of the story may be, the frank treatment of its subject and performances elevate the story.
Director Ben Lewin (who also wrote the script) expertly handles the delicate subject of sex and the disabled, never once allowing the characters to fall into the trap of pious condescension or pity. It’s a no nonsense look at life and love from a disabled point of view, and Lewis handles it simply and effectively.
The real credit for the story’s humanity, humor and passion, however, belongs to the actors. Helen Hunt bares all, emotionally and physically in a tender performance that would make her best-known character, “Mad About You’s” Jamie Buchman turn beet red, but it is John Hawkes who walks away with the picture, figuratively, not literally.
Playing a man who sleeps in an iron lung, who lost the ability to move below the neck at an early age, he is extraordinary. Using only his eyes, mouth and voice to express himself he creates a complete portrait of a man struggling past his emotional baggage to break through to another phase in his life. It’s a subtle performance that relies on minute changes in vocal quality and facial expressions to portray complication emotions. It’s also a far cry from his most famous role, the violent hillbilly drug dealer he played in “Winter’s Bone” and one that will garner attention at awards time.
“The Sessions” is a simple film about a difficult subject that eschews sentimentality for heartfelt feelings, and does so with a dose of unexpected humor.