Sex and Intimacy Powerful Bedfellows Can Make: A Review of “The Sessions”

Whoops! I forgot that I had seen this a few weeks ago on a visit to NYC for my Mom’s birthday, and left it out of my recent reviews. So here goes:

This is such a sweet, good-natured movie about appealing characters going through emotionally and physically uplifting moments . . . what’s not to like? I will admit that the film has a few almost-sacharine touches that mar its perfection, but like Helen Hunt’s magnificent middle-aged body, The Sessions remains beautiful in spite of the flaws.

At its center is a powerful performance by John Hawkes as Mark O’Brien, the virginal polio survivor who has managed to scratch out a decent living as a poet and journalist in spite of being immobile and largely confined to an iron lung. I first noticed John Hawkes in Me and You and Everyone We Know, where I found his off-beat presence a major plus in a film that redefined “twee” and then took it to the dark side. I then saw him in “Deadwood,” “Lost,” Winter’s Bone, and Higher Ground, and my admiration grew. Here, he does what Mathieu Amalric did in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, only without the advantage of the flashback scenes in which he could establish character as a fully functioning individual. I am simply in awe of the magnificence of Hawkes’s ability to project this much charisma from a gurney.

But he is not alone. Helen Hunt, as his sex surrogate, projects such warmth and humanity – and courage as an actress, since she is nude so much of the time – that it would be hard for even the most prudish viewer to object to the nature of her ministrations. As William H. Macy – excellent as the liberal priest who advises O’Brien – says, and which could be the mantra of the film, “I think God is going to give you a free pass on this one.” As an Atheist, I add, “Amen.”

As a final note, I just want to praise the supporting cast – Moon Bloodgood, Annika Marks, Adam Arkin, Rhea Perlman, Robin Weigert, and Ming Lo among them – for bringing the rest of the characters to vibrant life, and giving the late Mr. O’Brien the testament he deserves.

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