Starring John Hawkes, Helen Hunt. Written and directed by Ben Lewin. 14A. 95 min. Opens Oct. 26.
The most impressive thing about The Sessions isn’t that John Hawkes gives an Oscar-worthy performance while totally prostrate, playing a polio-stricken man confined to a gurney. It’s that director Ben Lewin allows Hawkes to do so without heaping on the pity. Mark O’Brien (Hawkes, who was also brilliantly understated as a Manson-esque cult leader in Martha Marcy May Marlene) seems to have decent healthcare and makes a pretty good living as a poet and journalist in San Francisco in the late-’80s. (The film is based on an article by the real Mark O’Brien.) Despite having dealt with the effects of the disease since he was a child—even graduating college and driving himself around in an electric gurney—he’s recently had to start relying on homecare workers to cart him around when he’s outside his iron lung. So when he gears up to lose his 38-year-old virginity with the help of a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt), his frustration and self-doubt emanate from an otherwise strong personality.
The sexual content is delivered in a refreshingly matter-of-fact manner: From Hunt’s confident (and confidently nude) portrayal of clinical-yet-caring Cheryl’s attention to physiological detail to Mark’s own honesty about his reasons for wanting to get laid, the tittering is kept to a minimum. Which isn’t to say that sex doesn’t generate laughs, but rather that they frequently come from Lewin’s clever cuts between Mark and Cheryl’s sessions and Mark’s “confessions” to his affable priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy, whose hippie-ish demeanour adds a hilarious extra layer to his role as Mark’s spiritual confidant).
Really, it’s the honest performances all around that make this otherwise slow-rolling film entirely engaging. Hawkes is so at ease in the skin of a character who’s trapped in his own body that the actors around him react the way normal people would when faced with his situation. Which is why the strands of love story—unrequited and otherwise—woven throughout the film also work: Mark is a magnetic fellow, the unlikeliest candidate for a powerful onscreen presence, but it’s easy to see why people are so drawn to him. In other words, no orchestral swells were necessary for this touching tale.