Film review: The Sessions

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John Hawkes plays a physically impaired mand determined to score with an assist from Helen Hunt. (Publicity photo) John Hawkes plays a physically impaired mand determined to score with an assist from Helen Hunt. (Publicity photo)

Buzz kill: The Sessions falls short of its Oscar-worthy hype

It’s that time of year again when transparent Oscar fodder makes its way to the local theater. Generally speaking, that means the ratio of able-bodied actors playing physically disabled real-life figures increases, and we get movies such as The Sessions.

This slight comedy-drama movie is getting accolades heaped on it because it has all the things Academy members—and audiences—love: 1) A beloved and gifted character actor (John Hawkes, playing a man who rises above his physical limitations) in a rare lead, and based on a real person; 2) A beloved and gifted character actor playing a wacky secondary role (William H. Macy as the worldly priest Father Brendan); 3) Helen Hunt.

Hawkes is Mark O’Brien, who spent most of his life in an iron lung after contracting polio as a child. For a few hours each week, O’Brien was able to leave the iron lung, and he spent those few hours getting a college degree, visiting with friends, and, in The Sessions, losing his virginity.

O’Brien published an article in 1990 called “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate,” and his research—the sessions, you might say—is the basis for The Sessions. When presented with an opportunity to write about the experience (at 38), he signs up.

And that, more or less, is the premise of The Sessions. Much of the movie deals with O’Brien’s conflicting feelings about sex and faith (he’s a devout Catholic but finds a sympathetic ear in Father Brendan), and his nervousness about being even more vulnerable than usual. Hawkes imbues O’Brien with warmth, intelligence and good humor. It can’t be easy to spend much of a movie completely motionless, and it must be even more difficult to be (mostly) nude for much of it.

Believe it or not, Macy has a bigger challenge with his character, but that’s because the priest is there mostly for laughs and, to some degree, he’s a surrogate for the audience. He’s not a buffoon or an idiot, but in their scenes together, much of the laughter depends on Father Brendan’s reactions to O’Brien’s frank queries on love, sex, and religion.

Then there’s Helen Hunt as Cheryl, the sex surrogate. She has perhaps the most difficult job: To be completely nude on screen much of the time while speaking with a corny Boston accent. Each time she says “Mahk” instead of “Mark,” it’s wince-worthy, as are some of the scenes in which she and Hawkes simulate having sex.

It’s not because the sex is awkward (though it is) or because Hunt is bad (though really, is she ever good?). No, it’s distracting to see her completely full-frontal nude while the camera gingerly avoids Hawkes’ penis. Where’s the parity here? Does a nude male still equal instant NC-17 at the MPAA? (Probably.) Whatever the reason, it’s distracting, but Hawkes is game and he makes O’Brien come to life. If The Sessions were as deep or charming as he is, it would really be something. Unfortunately, it just misses the “mahk.”

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The Sessions /R, 96 minutes/Vinegar Hill Theatre

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