In telling the story of writer Mark O’Brien, “The Sessions” has an intriguing set of challenges. The most obvious is putting an actor into O’Brien’s position for an entire feature film.
This is because O’Brien was unable to move below his neck, a result of childhood polio, although he had feeling throughout his body. That actor’s challenge is ably met by John Hawkes, but the other hurdle for the movie is even trickier.
That one involves making a crowd-pleasing (and in many ways old-fashioned) movie out of material that-by its nature-is going to be full of nudity and sex talk. “The Sessions” doesn’t always get that right, but is deserves credit for trying.
The movie is based on an article O’Brien published in 1990 about his experience seeing a sexual surrogate, a therapist who includes sex as part of the treatment. When he undertook the sessions, he was in his thirties, and a virgin.
The film suggests (as O’Brien’s article states) that his bad luck with sex was not entirely due to his disability, but also tied up in his feelings of guilt, which were instilled by his parents and his faith in religion. He falls in love with women easily, but he’s deeply embarrassed about sex.
In the movie, O’Brien visits a local pastor (William H. Macy, doing the long-haired folk-priest thing) for advice. Their sessions run parallel to O’Brien’s visits to the actual surrogate, and provide a sort of comic running commentary.
Same goes for O’Brien’s deadpan assistant, played by Moon Bloodgood. Her amusing presence is actually much funnier than most of the film’s official jokes.
The surrogate is played by Helen Hunt, whose usual no-nonsense presence seems about right for the role. The movie suggests that the surrogate herself became emotionally connected to O’Brien during the sessions, and Hunt navigates this turn of events with a credible performance.
Director Ben Lewin takes the right approach to the sexual encounters: they are shot in a matter-of-fact way that underscores the therapeutic purpose of the process.
As admirable as that approach is, Lewin allows the other sections of the movie to get too cute, with easy one-liners that seem designed to make the audience feel more comfortable with all this unusual material. Which maybe they will.
So some of it works, some of it doesn’t. But the lion’s share of esteem for the film should go to John Hawkes, the character actor whose recent rise (he was spellbinding in “Winter’s Bone” and “Martha Marcy May Marlene”) has been a rewarding cap to a hardworking career.
Obviously, Hawkes delivers his performance here with only his scarecrow’s face and his voice, both of which are working at top form. And most of the time his face is horizontal, as though director Lewin couldn’t imagine a way to occasionally show us this fellow right-side-up.
From whatever direction, the performance is a triumph — a bolt of humanity streaming from a mostly motionless source. Hawkses’ performance conveys the movie’s meaning better than a hundred pages of the script.
“The Sessions” (3 stars)
The true story of writer Mark O’Brien, a man disabled from childhood polio who chronicled his visits to a sex surrogate (played by a no-nonsense Helen Hunt) in his quest to end his virginity. A lot of the movie works, a lot doesn’t, but the central role is portrayed with great humor and humanity by John Hawkes, who has only his face and his voice to work with.
Rating: R, for nudity, language, subject matter
Showing: Guild 45th, Meridian.