Sunday, October 28, 2012

Movie Review: "The Sessions"

Mark O'Brien was a poet living in Berkeley, California in the late 1980s. After contracting polio at age 6, he spent the majority of his life in an iron lung, as his muscles were too weak to sustain any real movement. In his mid-30s, he decided he no longer wished to be a virgin, and hired a sex surrogate to help him achieve that goal. He recounted his experiences in an article called "On Seeing a Sex Surrogate."

Ben Lewin's surprisingly funny, warm, and enjoyable movie The Sessions is based on O'Brien's article. Academy Award nominee John Hawkes (Winter's Bone) gives a fantastic performance as O'Brien, a devout Catholic who craves love. After researching an article on sexual activity among people with disabilities, he realizes that there is an opportunity to explore a side of himself he never believed possible.

After seeking permission from his neighborhood priest (William H. Macy, believably befuddled by O'Brien), Mark hires sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt). Cheryl tries to approach Mark as just another client seeking to achieve a goal, but finds the challenges of her own life play havoc with her emotions. Cheryl helps Mark not only gain control of his body, but his courage and self-confidence as well.

Hawkes, who played menacing characters in both Winter's Bone and last year's Martha Marcy May Marlene, gives a performance which dazzles not only for his ability to evoke sensitivity, wry humor, and anxiety, but simply for the fact that he spends the entire movie lying flat on his back, head slightly tilted. The emotions and depth he is able to convey while not moving are the stuff for which awards are deservedly given. You never feel sorry for Mark because of his condition; you marvel at his heart, his mind, and his wicked sense of humor.

Helen Hunt, who has been practically AWOL from films for some time, also gives a terrific performance. Literally baring herself (and looking fantastic at age 49), she brings passion and intelligence to her role as a woman torn between professional detachment and emotional inspiration. Hunt is able to convey multiple emotions with a simple expression, and I found this to be a stronger performance than the one she won an Oscar for in As Good As It Gets. (Don't get me started on that one.)

This is a beautiful, well-acted little movie that is frank in its portrayal of our sexual desires, but is more about our need to feel loved. These actors, and the characters they played, make it easy to love them. I'd expect to see this movie receive a great deal of recognition come Oscar time.

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