The best place to start talking about a movie like The Sessions would probably be to address its chances at the Academy Awards this year. Dutifully constructed as crowd pleasing awards bait with grand performances and lessons about life and love delivered by a cast of off beat characters, writer and director Ben Lewin does justice to his subject and justice to his audience, but aside from the cast itself, the movie itself doesn’t aim high enough to play well outside of festival and arthouse settings. That’s a shame since it has a great lead performance from John Hawkes and solid supporting work from Helen Hunt and William H. Macy that shouldn’t go unnoticed despite just how unremarkable the movie ultimately feels.
Based on the life of writer and journalist Mark O’Brien and loosely cribbed from a 1988 article he had written about his first sexual experiences, Hawkes plays the man as an extraordinary character. Confined to an iron lung for nearly his entire adult life thanks to childhood polio, O’Brien yearns for human connection after all of his intellectual pursuits have been satisfied. After having his affections rebuffed by a caretaker he grew sweet on, O’Brien turns to a sex surrogate (Hunt) to give him his first experience. O’Brien’s Catholic guilt, his fears, and his health keep getting in the way of things going smoothly.
Aside from being choppily edited and looking oddly devoid of anything approaching an interesting visual sensibility, The Sessions really suffers from only having about an hour of truly interesting material to hang its hat on. After an intriguing set up, things are mostly resolved after 60 minutes and the film devolves into something dreadfully standard and audience baiting. Instead of seeming natural and unforced, Lewin decides he wants to become melodramatic and overbearing.
That’s not to say that the film is bereft of wit or emotion. During the first hour and beyond it’s quite easy to sympathize with O’Brien and his curious partner as they try to figure out a situation that’s equally scary and different to the both of them. They have a great rapport, but Hunt has to play the more business like of the two, staying warm on the surface, but calculating and distant beneath her smile. Hunt makes a fine return to the screen here after being away for far too long in a really bold performance for her that leaves her literally naked and vulnerable for a decent chunk of the film. It’s great to have her back.
Also on board and a welcome sight is Macy as the down to Earth priest Mark confesses to. He’s the type of priest that sees morality as something working on a sliding scale, and he doesn’t so much see a crisis of faith when confronted with Mark’s sexual desires, but a chance to put a suffering man at ease. He isn’t always comfortable discussing the particulars of his arrangements, but he truly wants what’s best for this member of his flock.
But the film’s heart and soul belong to Hawkes, who was somewhat unceremoniously robbed of an Oscar nomination for his chilling work in the somewhat overrated, but undeniably well acted Martha Marcy May Marlene. One the surface, this is the kind of performance that the Academy loves and recognized time and time again. Hawkes spends almost the entire film flat on his back, nearly motionless except for his neck and head, and sporting an extremely sunken in midsection. But what sets this portrayal above a lot of the work done by some of his peers in similar roles – and equally why it’s going to be harder for him to get a nomination – is just how funny and warm he manages to be. There’s such a small part of Mark that openly looks for pity that his optimism becomes more infectious and his frustration and heartbreak are magnified. Throughout, Hawkes portrays Mark as someone who can easily look at his lot in life and smile. He still has fears and great sadness, but he never dwells on them and is extremely proactive. It seems old hat for actors to take on these kinds of roles, but Hawkes does some truly incredible work here to make the character stand out in the memory of the viewer.
That ultimately makes the movie’s near failing crap out towards the end all the more frustrating. It isn’t enough to make the film go off the rails, but to watch a film with this strong of a set up suddenly realize that it only has enough material to sustain an hour long TV show before throwing together a clichéd and unnecessarily predictable Hollywood ending is kind of a bummer. It veers off into soap opera territory quite suddenly when things start to become strained between the main pairing and the woman’s husband, and it also unnecessarily makes Mark’s illness something to propel the final act of the film when previously Lewin was doing such a good job of not making it an issue to mine manufactured emotion from. It becomes a “feel good” button pusher when the audience was already feeling good the entire time.