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Movie Review | ‘The Sessions’ affirms hype

John Hawkes plays a realistic, empathetic O’Brian

Published: Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, November 7, 2012 08:11

If awards are anything to go by, “The Sessions” is a unanimous hit: the film has already won both the Audience Award and the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. This uplifting, heartwarming and often tear−jerking film opened in Boston last weekend.

In the film, Mark O’Brien is a poet/writer who suffered from polio at a young age and is now confined to a gurney. He relies on an iron lung to breathe and has an assistant throughout the day. Already in his mid−thirties, O’Brien (played by John Hawkes) decides that he wants to lose his virginity before he dies. After receiving a blessing from his priest, Father Brendan, to commit this “sin,” he contacts a sex surrogate, Cheryl, played by Helen Hunt. Based on true events detailed in an article written by the real−life Mark O’Brien, this film explores one man’s joie de vivre, the complexity of human interaction and the great emotional power of a physically weak individual.

From the beginning, it is clear that “The Sessions” aims to be uplifting and joyous despite its relatively serious subject matter. Bright lighting, playful music and a relaxed Berkeley, California atmosphere accentuate its light, yet earnest tone.

O’Brien’s strong, magnetic personality immediately gains the sympathy of the viewer. His voiceover, a poetic internal dialogue that follows him throughout the film, presents his vulnerability in a way that only the audience can know as he makes a concerted effort to appear confident to those around him. This all changes when he meets Cheryl, his sex surrogate. Throughout their sessions, she eases his anxiety and guides him through sexual understanding.

These sessions parallel O’Brien’s “confessions” with Father Brendan, who is played by the always−delightful William H. Macy. Given that a gurney cannot fit into a confession booth, their conversations take place before the altar. The absurdity of a man on a gurney describing explicit sexual details to a priest in the middle of a church accentuates O’Brien’s conviction and exuberance, but more importantly shows his incredible ability to confide in and befriend the unlikeliest of people.

It would be unfair just to say that John Hawkes delivers a tremendous performance, as he does much more than that. He has an astounding ability to transcendentally convey his emotions through only his face and his voice, something that is taken for granted by most actors. His fear, pain, anger, joy and ecstasy are all powerfully portrayed in an incredibly natural manner. There is a fine line between empathetically appreciating a struggling character and pitying him, but Hawkes does a remarkable job of not doing the latter. Amazingly, Hawkes was so devoted to this role throughout production that he must now physically pay for his complete embodiment of O’Brian: his chiropractor told him that during the filming his organs began to migrate because of the positioning of his body on the gurney.

Although Hawkes’ portrayal of O’Brien is the winning performance in “The Sessions,” Helen Hunt should not go unnoticed. After her successful acting career in the ’90s, she went practically unnoticed for the first decade of the 2000s. Though I was initially hesitant to see her in a lead performance in 2012, I found myself pleasantly surprised by her incredibly honest and natural portrayal of Cheryl in “The Sessions.” The relationship between Cheryl and O’Brien is at first awkward and uncomfortable, but as a professional, she finds ways to ease him out of his negativity. Throughout the film, the two characters develop an attachment that is at times too strong, leaving both of them confused and wanting more.

The central theme of sexuality in this film results in frequent nudity, yet these scenes never come across as explicit or overwhelming. “The Sessions” is a meditation on intimacy and human connection, both physically and emotionally. As Father Brendan says, the film is about “a dynamic voice in a paralyzed body.”

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