Review: ‘The Sessions’
The Sessions looks like the faux-indie hit of the year. It’s been a smash at various festivals, and John Hawkes has garnered reams of praise for his central performance, and has become an early Oscar favorite. It’s unfair to go into any movie carrying the weight of too-high expectation, but nonetheless, I was somewhat let down by this film. There are some great things about it; Hawkes deserves every accolade he’s received, and I found the movie’s treatment of sexuality to be mostly refreshing for a mainstream film. But besides that, I wasn’t terribly impressed with The Sessions.
Hawkes plays Marc O’Brien, a real-life poet and journalist who spent most of his life lying immobilized on a gurney, depending on an iron lung to breathe. Polio had crippled him, but he was able to live a mostly fulfilling life, despite being unable to move more than his head. At the point in which this story finds him, though, Marc is dissatisfied with his lack of romantic connection. He seeks out the help of a sexual surrogate, Cheryl Greene (Helen Hunt) to get over his hangups and learn how to express himself physically.
Hawkes has affected a terrific transformation here, and not just in how he commits to a Day-Lewis-in-My-Left-Foot kind of physicality. He’s an artistic soul who nonetheless refuses to be an “inspirational cripple.” Hawkes has to do a lot with his face, and somehow develop a recognizable body language for a character who can’t move his body. He pulls it off, and Marc is deeply sympathetic as a result. His winning, sardonic wit lies atop a heartbreaking vulnerability. I wasn’t moved enough to cry, like I heard some other viewers have been, but seeing Hawkes in action sometimes gave me chills. There’s a reason he’s one of our best character actors, and if nothing else, this role should finally give him the kind of recognition he deserves.
The way the film treats Marc’s sexual development is halfway marvelous and halfway cringe-inducing. On the positive side, it could have used the idea of a thirty-eight-year-old man learning to have sex for either cheap laughs or cheaper melodrama, but the movie does a great job of finding both the humor and the tenderness that arises naturally from the situation. It’s very frank and unafraid in discussions about sex, and never veers into feeling leery or exploitative (although the fact that Helen Hunt bares all while nothing personal of Hawkes is shown hurts its case more than a little).
But on the other hand, the movie couldn’t break free from the tired “sex ALWAYS leads to love” cliche. Hollywood is seemingly crippled by the fear of depicting non-romantic sexual relationships (unless they involve studly action heroes, of course), and having Marc and Cheryl fall in love is even more disastrous here than it normally is when this trope shows up. It makes sense of Marc’s end, since he’s essentially going through a delayed adolescent experience. But rather than treat this as something Marc needs to get over in order to evolve as a person, the script muddles everything by having Cheryl reciprocate. It’s honestly insulting to her character to have her fall for Marc over the course of just a few meetings, especially after she’s been established as a consummate professional (literally). Even if this is what happened in real life, it doesn’t work here. Like I wrote in my Compliance review, “it happened in real life!” isn’t a worthy justification.
It’s also disappointing that a movie that does better than the average on sexuality still has such as sophomoric view of spirituality. Marc O’Brien’s faith was a big part of his life, and besides Hunt, the big supporting role in the film goes to William H. Macy as Father Brendan, O’Brien’s confidant and religious advisor. Marc did a very brave and unusual thing in looking past dogma to find what he believed would lead him to something emotionally profound, and thus spiritually fulfilling. The film is totally wearing kid gloves with this subject, though. Baby gloves, even. Macy’s character mostly exists for easy “he’s a priest talking about sex!” jokes.
The Sessions is saved almost single-handedly by John Hawkes. If someone less terrific were in the lead role, this movie would be nothing more than treacly tripe. As it is, it’s treacly, but with moments of grace and beauty. It could have been something so much more, but Hawkes was the only one who lived up to that potential.