Helen Hunt as “Cheryl Cohen Greene” and John Hawkes as “Mark O’Brien.”
There are films and then there are labors of love. in The Sessions happens to be both.
Culled from autobiographical essays and poetry, writer/ director Ben Lewin tells the story of Mark OBrien a San Franciscan artist, who after thirty-plus years in an iron lung, becomes motivated more than ever to lose his virginity before he passes his sell by date.
Riddled with catholic guilt over his decision, a priest and his therapist help him achieve catharsis. While the story is autobiographical, The Sessions declines telling the whole life story in lieu of covering the single major transition. Lewins opting for less is more allows the subtle nuances of humanity to permeate the film.
Its important to understand that this film isnt necessarily about sex as much as its about intimacy. The films premise could easily go astray but, fortunately, a glut of actors give clutch performances.
John Hawkes is nothing short of brilliant in playing OBrien. The great trick the actor pulls off is conveying all 90 percent of his non-verbal communication from the bottom of his neck to the top of his head. Its also shocking to see Hawkes do a character that has heart. He could be a menacing meth dealer, or a charismatic and savage cult leader, let alone his darker turns in HBO's "Eastbound and Down" and "Deadwood." But to see him play honest, self-deprecating and, dare I say, sweet, proves that this actor is far from one note.
William H. Macy is crucial to the film as OBriens priest, Father Brendan. While he is an amalgam of various priests, he helps carry the emotional weight through the writers journey. As an actor, Macy provides the needed comic support to prevent the film from falling under its own weight. The same could be said for Moon Bloodgood in the role of OBriens caretaker, where there is a warmth added where the character could just be a cardboard cutout. Its nice to see her with a role that has depth and clothes.
Saving the best for last, this is easily Helen Hunts best film in a decade and arguably ever as Cheryl Cohen-Greene. Hawkes' big trick was to convey non-verbal communication. As great as that is, Hunts ability is to take away the taboo of sexual surrogacy is just as impressive. Naked throughout most of the film, you dont notice her figure as much as youre observing a therapist clinically removing years of repression. Sleight of hand indeed.
The Sessions is a film that lives up to hype and surpasses expectation. Required viewing.