The Sessions | Movie review
John Hawkes plays disabled poet Mark O’Brien in a crowd-pleasing drama.
To understand the minor triumph Ben Lewin has achieved with The Sessions, it helps to consider the movie he didn’t make. The writer-director’s subject is the late Mark O’Brien, a California journalist and poet whose childhood bout with polio left him paralyzed from the neck down and confined, for most of his days and nights, to an iron lung. Well chronicled in the Oscar-winning doc short “Breathing Lessons,” O’Brien’s struggles would make easy fodder for a triumph-over-adversity tearjerker—the polar opposite of this sprightly, warmly comic portrait of the artist.
Much of the levity comes from the man beneath the metal, Winter’s Bone star John Hawkes. Speaking in a pinched tenor, between short and shallow breaths, the actor plays O’Brien as a candid, self-deprecating romantic. It’s a remarkably animated performance, given that the character’s range of motion doesn’t extend much below his Adam’s apple. Hawkes’s bemused irreverence colors the whole film, blotting out any traces of pity.
Rather than taking the long view of O’Brien’s life, Lewin zeroes in on one pivotal chapter: the writer’s efforts, at 38, to lose his virginity. Securing the permission of his progressive priest (William H. Macy, amusingly deadpan), O’Brien calls upon the services of a “sex surrogate,” played with vulnerability, good humor and a come-and-go Massachusetts accent by Helen Hunt. From here, The Sessions becomes something richer still: a frank story of sexual discovery, buoyed by the understanding that this particular rite of passage is exciting and nerve-racking for just about everyone, regardless of how they breathe.