Oh, what we’ll take lying down
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, October 26, 2012
It’s a premise that launched 1,000 raunchy sex comedies (not to mention Steve Carell’s career): A guy somehow makes it to middle age without having had sex, embarks on a mission to lose his virginity, and laughter, hijinks and happily-ever-afters.
Thankfully, plenty of laughs do ensue in “The Sessions,” in which John Hawkes doesn’t play as much as channel the late poet and author Mark O’Brien. A man of prickly, unsentimental humor, O’Brien suffered most of his life from the effects of a childhood bout with polio, which left him severely disabled and confined to an iron lung.
“The Sessions” opens with real-life footage of O’Brien attending and graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, an accomplishment that was greeted with fanfare on campus and the evening news. Less photogenic were the loneliness and isolation that bedeviled a man whose acute intelligence, lacerating powers of observation and native charm made him a natural people-person (not to mention an incorrigible flirt).
Sex, understandably enough, was difficult: Even the body parts that still worked just fine were constricted by the grim realities of O’Brien not being able to breathe for more than a few hours a week on his own. “The Sessions” is based on two articles O’Brien wrote about enlisting the services of a surrogate sex partner, who as portrayed by Helen Hunt in the film, opens up a world of self-acceptance and expression in O’Brien that he heretofore considered impossible.
Even if “The Sessions” doesn’t traffic in the sophomoric winking of “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” there are so many ways it could have gone wrong, from movie-of-the-week banality to facile Oscar-bait uplift. Perhaps it’s a function of director Ben Lewin’s chronological maturity (he’s 65), or the fact that he’s a polio survivor himself, but he has managed to keep “The Sessions” from succumbing to every conceivable trap, creating a movie that brims with spiky humor, indefatigable resolve and profound emotional truth.
Granted, “The Sessions” has smoothed the harder edges of the actual man who, as captured in the Oscar-winning short documentary “Breathing Lessons,” could become so enraged at his situation that he fantasized about mowing able-bodied people down with a machine gun. But as portrayed in an endearing, alert performance by Hawkes, O’Brien emerges as a protagonist who, despite his constrained physical circumstances, is anything but inert.
Affecting an authentically broad Boston drawl, his blue eyes twinkling mischievously, Hawkes enters his role with unfettered commitment from the first moments he’s on screen in “The Sessions,” when he awakes with an itchy nose and commands himself to “scratch with your mind.” When he’s maltreated by one of a succession of nurses, he explains in a voice-over, “I typed my skinny novel in my head and thought about revenge.”
Watching O’Brien conduct interviews for that nurse’s replacement provides the audience with a primer of sorts in his unsentimental sensibility: An “advanced sense of humor” is welcome, and those “you need me more than I need you” looks -- with which so many disabled are familiar -- are decidedly not. By the time O’Brien contacts Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Hunt), it’s clear that “The Sessions” has no intention of comforting its audience with hackneyed overcoming-obstacles montages or dewy scenes of airbrushed ecstasy.
In fact, Cheryl turns out to be just the kind of direct, matter-of-fact partner O’Brien is looking for -- not just in bed but in life. Carrying a movie while immobilized might make for a showier example of screen acting, but Hunt deserves just as much praise as Hawkes for her depiction of Cheryl, in an unmannered star turn that possesses its own physical challenges: Rescuing female nudity from the usual Hollywood strictures of titillation and exploitation, Hunt imbues Cheryl with exceptional tenderness and honesty. When painful boundary issues arise, filmgoers will be forgiven for wondering exactly what outcome they should root for.
With its frank, clear-eyed understanding of physiology and its willingness to recouple physical intimacy with the emotional kind, “The Sessions” recalls last summer’s “Hope Springs,” an indication, perhaps, that movies are finally growing out of porn or adolescent giggles when it comes to sexuality. But Lewin goes one step further, creating in “The Sessions” not just a portrait of erotic self-discovery but of how genuine compassion can radically reframe the world.
Throughout the film O’Brien, a devout Catholic, meets with his priest, Father Brendan (played with bemused understatement by William H. Macy), who when first consulted about hiring a surrogate voices concerns about fornication outside of marriage but concludes that “in my heart I feel like He’ll give you a free pass on this one.”
Thanks to Lewin’s light but assured touch, “The Sessions” never wears its theological preoccupations heavily, instead allowing transcendence to creep up on the audience quietly. It turns out that Father Brendan’s instincts are utterly spot on: What starts as two people’s physical journey turns into a spiritual one, replete with love, acceptance and breathtaking grace.
Contains strong sexuality, including graphic nudity and frank dialogue.