Over the last few years, John Hawkes has positioned himself as one of the most dependable supporting actors around, so it was only a matter of time before Hawkes was given a meaty lead role for him to show off his talents. The Sessions hit theaters last year on a wave of festival buzz due to both its frank depiction of sexuality and its unusually bold (in Hollywood speak, this means naked) supporting performance from Helen Hunt.
I first read about it sometime around last year’s Sundance, where word on the street claimed that Hawkes was a lock-in for a best actor Oscar nomination. While that ultimately didn’t come to pass (the 2013 awards show had a ridiculously stacked actor category), Hunt did eventually receive a nomination in a supporting category. They’re both great performances, and they’re both performances that often get recognized by awards shows, so it’s no surprise that the film generated the buzz that it did.
What surprised me about the movie, once I actually had the ability to see it, is how daring and risky it isn’t when it comes to both its subject-matter and its depiction of it. Of course, the movie was never going to give us close-ups of unsimulated sex featuring two movie stars, but I was expecting the movie to be a little riskier than it ended up being.
This shouldn’t be a strike against the quality of the movie itself. The movie we ended up getting is a pleasant, inspiring experience. It follows Mark O’Brien (Hawkes), a man afflicted with Polio and forced to live his entire life lying flat on a gurney and breathing with the assistance of an iron lung, and how he decides to hire a sex surrogate (Hunt) so he can lose his virginity before he dies.
Lewin’s script (based on O’Brien’s own essay) does a good job of telling us about O’Brien’s illness and the limitations he has to face each day. However, Lewin has a much harder time trying to pinpoint exactly how a sex surrogate is different from a prostitute. The script includes a few conversations that attempt to make the distinction clear, but those who come in to the movie with a pre-conceived notion about the profession will not walk away with a different opinion. Again, I’m not sure if this is the film’s fault, or if I wanted a movie about the profession itself and not the sessions in question.
For a performance in which Hawkes literally does nothing but talk, he is able to inject a startling amount of nuance and subtlety into the role. Even though he is strapped into a gurney and unable to move, Hawkes somehow provides a heartbreaking physicality to O’Brien. It’s a great performance from a master of his art, and it’s in the film’s lighter moments, when O’Brien makes nervous jokes during the sessions themselves, that Hawkes really shines. Hunt carries the emotional burden of the film, and her performance is extraordinarily understated. It isn’t until the last few minutes of screen time that the Cheryl’s layers really begin to show. It’s the kind of performance Helen Hunt is very good at, but for some reason never receives credit for. Her Oscar nomination was very well deserved, and perhaps, on another year, it would have taken home the prize.
For all of its merits, The Sessions has trouble reconciling all of its ideas into a cohesive tone. O’Brien’s best friend, his Priest (played by William H. Macy), stands as the moral center of the film, but he spends most of the movie offering awkward comic relief and little else. For those of us interested in the real ethical dilemma of such a situation, it was a little disappointing to see this aspect of the film stutter. In this regard, I also found the “Frank Dialogue,” as the MPAA calls it, a little underwhelming. For a movie about the intricacies of sex, there’s not all that much sex to speak of. Helen Hunt is nude in a few scenes, and sex is certainly discussed, but the conversations often remain superficial for a movie that is marketed as being a very raw, frank look at human sexuality.
Moreover, even then Hunt has a few nude scenes, there’s never a nude scene for John Hawkes, who is the one going through his sexual awakening. It’s an odd directorial decision to remove any naked, lingering, vulnerable images of O’Brien when the camera is so fixated on Hunt, who is, by her profession, very comfortable with her body.
Despite these odd decisions by Lewin (and perhaps the original essay), The Sessions is still a very moving, superbly acted piece of filmmaking.