The opening scenes of The Sessions set the stage for the gloriously humanity-affirming story that is the tale of Mark O’Brien’s life. Stricken with polio, he rides through a Bay Area university campus strapped to his electric-powered portable gurney. Proof of the film’s heavy subject meets indelible humor is showcased when, moments later, John Hawkes as O’Brien explains why he no longer has the engine-powered contraption that moves him around. “I honestly couldn’t see where I was going."
Filmmaker Ben Lewin (himself a polio survivor) has crafted a story in The Sessions that could be heavy on the drama given the situation of our main character, but there is an intrinsic humor strewn throughout that is utterly delightful.
Hawkes portrays O’Brien as a man in his forties, who is now a successful poet and writer. After only being given years to live beyond his twenties, he treats each day as the gift that it is. Only thing, he feels something is missing. He has never had a romantic conquest, so as a devout Catholic, he seeks advice from his priest (William H. Macy) as to what to do. Through a fellow handicapped friend, he learns of a sex therapist (Helen Hunt) who specializes in the disabled and aiding them in finding sexual solace.
Macy plays Father Brendan as compassionate, yet still struggling with the constraints of religious rules. But, he is a modern man with his long hair and sun-kissed face that makes him look like he has enjoyed his life to its fullest. The chemistry between Macy and Hawkes is warm, gentle and truly becomes a friendship beyond priest and parishioner.
When Father Brendan looks at the cross with Jesus upon it and contemplates O’Brien’s request to explore his sexuality with this therapist, the priest’s pain and compassion are equally clear in Macy’s face. This most likely will be O’Brien’s only way to experience the ultimate physical manifestation of human contact and something that is clearly a sin as it involves sex before marriage. Macy gloriously says, “In my heart, I feel He'll give you a free pass on this one. Go for it!”
What this The Sessions review salutes above all else is the performance of Hawkes. Throughout his award-nominated career he has shown he is a chameleon. Yet in his latest film, he takes that reputation to a whole new level. Not only does he physically contort himself to become the polio stricken character, he captures the man’s deep sense of humor that was prevalent in all of his writings. This is a character that does not take himself too seriously, even with the cards he has been dealt in life.
Oscar winner Hunt is also a revelation. She handles what could be an extremely awkward situation for any actress with grace. Her Cheryl is equal parts sympathetic, serene and yes, sexual. Without these lessons that she imparts on O’Brien, his life would be a little less full. Through her place in the story, we see that all parts of life’s journey can be experienced, even for those who find themselves firmly planted in a body that does not want to cooperate. She is a vehicle through which we see O’Brien live his best years.
The Sessions is clearly a film that the Academy will notice come nomination time. Not only is Hawkes a shoe-in, but Hunt and Macy have to be given consideration, as does director Lewin for his masterful way of weaving drama, comedy, romance and an all-out affirmation of life itself.