It's hard to think that a film about a man living in an iron lung could be labelled “the feel good movie of the festival.” But The Sessions beats the odds. For director Ben Lewin, who himself struggled with polio as a child, and his stellar cast, sex, disability, Catholicism and humour blend together to shape the unlikeliest of crowd pleasers.
The Sessions centres on Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), a poet who fell victim to polio in his childhood and lost all his muscle strength from the neck down. His body retains its sensitivity, hence the narratively critical ability to achieve erections, but is unable to move and requires an iron lung to breathe. At the age of 38 and faced with the prospect that his days might be numbered before he ever gets to “meet” a woman, O’Brien decides to lose his virginity; and to do that, he’ll have to overcome two obstacles: an overwhelming sense of anxiety caused by his physical disability, and a fear of being sinful resulted from his devout belief in the Catholic church.
The second obstacle is easier for him to clear as he consults Father Brendan (a hilarious and poignant William H. Macy), an unconventionally forgiving priest who tells O’Brien that in his heart he knows Jesus will give him a pass. With that green light, O’Brien goes on to find Cheryl Cohen Greene (a top-form Helen Hunt), a sex therapist who is willing to take him through the mechanics of sex in six sessions.
The Sessions isn’t exactly a biopic... Luckily, there is no greatest hits list of events from O’Brien’s life and this allows for a focused and thoughtful narrative to take shape. As simple as its story is – and very conventionally told, too – the fact that the film puts the spotlight so brightly on the sex life of a disabled man and discusses it with frankness and explicit sexuality, makes it special. God forbid people in their forties ever be so open about their sex lives in Hollywood films, even able bodied ones; this is a very welcome surprise.
On top of that, part of why the film succeeds is its ability to make us laugh out loud at certain situations that do not merit laughter otherwise. O'Brien's outstanding sense of humour that got him through each day is present in the dialogue. Lewin, too, in the most well-intentioned manner, makes light of a tragic situation. And yet, humour isn't the strongest weapon in The Sessions' arsenal. That would be John Hawkes, whose performance is worthy of all the praise that has been lavished on him. He relies on nothing except his facial muscles for expressivity but is absolutely staggering in bringing the character to life, pulling off his sweet humour, his nasal voice and his palpable anxiety.
Hawkes has been on a roll in the past couple of years with his Oscar nominated performance in Winter's Bone and an equally powerful turn in Martha Marcy May Marlene. Immediately after The Sessions screened at Sundance, he was touted as a potential Oscar nominee. That seems inevitable as there's virtually nothing standing in his way - a likeable actor in a likeable film playing an extremely likeable person with with a disability, with a really strong, emotional performance to boot. The bigger question is whether he can go all the way to win and whether the film, given the Academy's tendency to award this type of adult-oriented crowd-pleaser, has the potential to expand beyond the Best Actor category.