If most acting is done with the eyes, John Hawkes' performance in “The Sessions” serves as an example of how to accomplish a convincing emotional performance with virtually no physicality. In order to play Mark O'Brien, a quadriplegic in his late 30s who visits a sexual surrogate to lose his virginity, Hawkes maintains a rigid, immovable posture, head to the side and motionless, and yet conveys all that he must. His skillful and fully invested performance elevates the otherwise conventional structure and tone of this real-life story.
O'Brien's childhood bout with polio in the 1950s left him profoundly paralyzed, and by the time he graduated from the University of California Berkeley's journalism program, he required several hours in an iron lung each day to keep from suffocating. Unable to sit upright, O'Brien had to travel everywhere by gurney — even to accept his diploma. Writer-director Ben Lewin sets the main action in the late 1980s, when a story assignment to cover how paraplegics and quadriplegics deal with sexual dysfunction leads him on his own quest with Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt), a clinical sexual surrogate.
Rather than soft-pedaling on the character, Hunt spends roughly three-quarters of her screen time fully naked as she gently tries to accommodate a man with almost no control over his body. Her scenes with Hawkes are purposely and convincingly uncomfortable, then progress toward a physical and emotional intimacy level O'Brien never previously experienced.
Hawkes and Hunt did not do a lot of rehearsal for the bed scenes, which heightens the tension and awkwardness between the characters. Most other elements of “The Sessions” are familiar mechanisms, especially his ongoing series of confessionals and consultations with his parish priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy). The progressive-minded priest is a supportive character who helps O'Brien sort through the religious and emotional implications of his quest, but his presence feels like a storytelling device, a fallback designed to vary the setting and O'Brien's interactions. Also, an unnecessarily large amount of time is devoted to Cheryl's faltering marriage to Josh (Adam Arkin), who generally has no problem with his wife's job until, right on time for a third-act conflict, gets jealous of O'Brien when the patient/client experiences feelings of transference toward his therapist.
O'Brien died in 1999, several years after meeting long-term girlfriend Susan, who is played by Hawkes' “Deadwood” co-star, Robin Weigert. “The Sessions” is at its best when it maintains focus on Hunt and Hawkes' naturalistic acting. Almost everything around them feels like a dodge or a breather for audiences, a chance to avert eyes away from the delicately courageous scenes that make “The Sessions” really matter.
— George Lang
Starring: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy, Robin Weigert.
(Strong sexuality including graphic nudity and frank dialogue)
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