Sometimes a trailer does precisely the opposite of what it intends to do: dissuades you from going to see a movie. That was my experience when I saw the trailer for Ben Lewin’s film The Sessions; it made the movie look sappy, syrupy and sentimental. I gave it a shot, though, if only because it sported a terrifically impressive cast, led by John Hawkes, who’s been doing great work the last few years.
The good news is that, contrary to the trailer, Lewin has delivered a solid drama for adults (no, really, Helen Hunt is naked all over the place), and Hawkes offers up another great performance.
The movie—opening Friday, Nov. 2, at Hillcrest and La Jolla Village cinemas—is based on the writings of Mark O’Brien, a journalist and poet who spent much of his life in an iron lung after a childhood bout with polio left him paralyzed from the neck down. Despite his difficulties, O’Brien, the subject of an Oscar-winning short documentary in 1997, enjoyed a great deal of success in his life. Up until the period where the film begins, however, he didn’t do so well with the ladies. When he was in his 30s, he decided it was time to lose his virginity, and he did so by hiring a sexual surrogate, Cheryl Cohen-Greene, who’s played by Hunt.
Inherently, then, this is a movie about sex, but in reality, it’s a film about intimacy, and about how Cohen-Greene helps O’Brien come to terms with himself and his body. Lewin plays it straight, and though there are occasional sex jokes, they come naturally. There’s little that feels forced, especially in Hawkes’ performance. The key is that he doesn’t portray O’Brien as angry. Quite the opposite, in fact—the character is a genuinely great guy, regularly drawing stares as he zips around Berkeley on a custom-built gurney. He’s charming and funny, but he’s not a clown or a stereotype.
Hawkes also taps into the terrible loneliness that plagues so many people with disabilities. In many ways, O’Brien has come to terms with his body, but in others, he rages against the unfairness of his situation, though he’s unable to express his frustration physically. Hawkes’ is a rich, layered performance, and it’s done almost entirely without moving (in fact, the actor was immobile so much during the course of the shoot that he did a bit of damage to his body). This is so different from the work that Daniel Day-Lewis did for his Oscar-winning turn in My Left Foot, but it’s no less valid, and the moments of intimacy that O’Brien and Cohen-Greene share are really quite lovely.
The rest of the story—how Cohen-Greene becomes attached to O’Brien as he grows infatuated with her—you can see coming. But O’Brien’s relationship with his priest (William H. Macy) is compelling because it forces both men to examine their faith through a different light. It’s an interesting conundrum for Macy’s Father Brendan—whether he can absolve O’Brien of the sin of sex out of wedlock, considering the circumstances. It’s a religious perspective we might expect out of Berkeley in the 1980s, but not so much from a Catholic priest in these modern times.
Perhaps what’s most important about The Sessions is that Lewin—who suffered from polio himself and uses braces to walk—has his own understanding of disability, and he doesn’t use it as a crutch for his film’s central character. It’s rare these days that a character in a film or on TV who has a disability isn’t defined by that trait, but Hawkes’ O’Brien defines himself by who he is as a person, not what his body has become. And since he’s able to do it, the audience can, too.