Film Review: The Sessions
The term ‘indie darling’ has a very strict definition. No one would be able to describe in words to you what it means, but just like you can’t be told what the matrix is, to describe an ‘indie darling’ you have to be shown. The closest anyone can really come to words is to simply speculate that it is probably released through Fox Searchlight.
How fitting it is then that in the midst of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, one of the bright sparks of last year’s finally rears its head as a UK release courtesy of Fox Searchlight. Winner of both the Audience Award and the Special Jury Prize, The Sessions tells the true story of polio-stricken poet Mark O’Brien and his journey to become, in his life, a sexually active man (or at least, lose his virginity).
Just the premise of O’Brien’s story is both laugh and tear inducing, and the adaptation of his quest, in the form of Ben Lewin’s wonderfully charming film, is just as much so. It always teeters between comedy and drama, but through a delicate use of both devices is able to land perfectly in the middle. This is, almost wholly, in thanks to another fantastic performance from John Hawkes. It was only a few years ago he was simply a great cable-TV character actor (Deadwood, Eastbound and Down), but in the last few years, Hawkes has been able to completely win over crowd after crowd, critic after critic with his gutsy performances. Though nominated for an Oscar for his supporting role in 2010’s Winter’s Bone, he is criminally overlooked here. The Sessions marks his best work to date, and he should be proud of the dramatic and comedic justice he was able to do for O’Brien’s heroic tale.
Within minutes, you fall in love with O’Brien. He is devastatingly intelligent, driven, and continuously lighthearted in spite of his physical disadvantage. So driven in fact, he decides that one day (after a string of romantic failures), he is going to seek out sex…with the approval of his priest, of course.
Mark’s priest comes in the form of the ever-in-form William H. Macy, and as the headband-wearing, beer-sharing Father, he is as charismatic and subtly integral to the picture as you would expect. He is not only Mark’s confidant, but his closest friend. Beautiful though their relationship may be however, it is certainly not the one everyone has paid their money to watch evolve.
If you try to recall the last film Helen Hunt appeared in, you’d most likely struggle. Bit part in Emilio Estevez’s Bobby aside, she hasn’t really done anything of note since her Hollywood hey-day (What Women Want, Cast Away, Pay It Forward – all released in 2000). It is a real treat then, to see Hunt performing at her own high level once again. She is wonderfully strong (and later vulnerable) in her turn as Mark’s sex surrogate. As Cheryl, she is as sensitive as she is professional. And though somewhat of a hardbody, always comes across as open hearted and true to herself and others, even if it isn’t what the job calls for. The scenes between her and Hawkes are almost perfectly acted, with Hunt’s charm factor bringing the best out of her opposite number. It’s one of the most oddly natural pairings seen on screen for some time, and one that both actors should have been Academy-recognised for.
Additionally, Moon Bloodgood and Adam Arkin provide further solidarity in an already successful film. As familiar faces go, they suited the characters as well as the mood already established by the two leads.
A tender telling of an unlikely story, The Sessions is a fantastic example of honest, confident writing brought to life by two of the most capable actors in the game.