If the old adage about there being no such thing as an overnight success ever applied to anyone, it would be prolific and gifted character actor John Hawkes. Most people had probably never heard of him before his well-deserved Oscar nod for Winter's Bone, and his ability to transform himself from role to role -- both physically and, seemingly, psychologically -- has made it difficult for viewers to recognize him even if they've already been impressed by his work. With Ben Lewin's film The Sessions, Hawkes is given the biggest and juiciest leading role of his career, and he pulls it off with remarkable grace and humor.
He plays the real-life journalist and poet Mark O'Brien, who was confined to an iron lung for much of his life after being crippled from the neck down by polio as a child. Despite spending the majority of his time inside the large contraption, O'Brien had built a career as a freelance writer. As the film opens, he gets an assignment that brings him into contact with the world of sexual surrogates, and this gives him the opportunity to seriously consider losing his virginity -- at the age of 38.
It's not just physical constraints that have kept him from acting on his natural impulses: Mark is a devout Catholic, and to guarantee that his soul will be fine, he seeks counsel from his local priest (William H. Macy). He eventually hires Cheryl (Helen Hunt), who lays out the ground rules for their strictly professional interactions and specifies that they will meet no more than four times -- that's what separates her from being a prostitute whose main goal is repeat business. She is caring and nurturing, but will not allow herself to develop feelings for her clients beyond that. At least not until Mark, with his humor and sensitivity, starts to crumble Cheryl's professional barriers.
Their relationship makes up the majority of The Sessions, and while the sexuality in the movie is frank and honest, it's as much about the quest for love as it is the quest for an orgasm. Mark wants to be in love -- he doesn't just have the heart of a poet, he is a poet -- and the film charts his relationships with three different women, including a college student he hires to be his personal nurse.
For a movie this small and delicate to work requires acting of the highest order, and the entire cast deliver. Hunt is heartbreakingly honest as she utilizes acting muscles she hasn't flexed in a long while. Macy gives the picture comic relief as well as an added poignancy, and by wanting nothing but the best for Mark, he becomes our surrogate onscreen. Even Adam Arkin, with precious little screen time as Cheryl's husband, connects as a real person because of his obvious discomfort not with his wife's job, but with her growing attachment to her new client.
For all of their remarkable skill, The Sessions is first and foremost the John Hawkes show. His savviest move is to give Mark a distinctive thin and reedy voice, which is exactly right since his condition wouldn't allow him to get any sort of breath support when he speaks. Yet within that imposition on his own performance, Hawkes makes sure to vary that voice depending on what he's feeling, and his face is so full of life -- especially his eyes -- that we can feel his longing and his desires, as well as his decency. Like Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot, Hawkes plays a real person with a major physical disability who refused to let the effects of his disorder define his soul. Day-Lewis scored his first Oscar for playing the ferociously alive Christy Brown, and Hawkes deserves to be in the running for his work as the soulful, decent, and horny Mark O'Brien.
Ben Lewin isn't anywhere close to being a household name -- his most widely seen movie is probably 1994's Paperback Romance -- but with The Sessions, this nearly 70-year-old Polish filmmaker reveals a perfect touch with actors and the wisdom to understand the deepest desires of the human heart. The Sessions is a compassionate, funny, and warmhearted look at how sex and love inform each other; it's mature in the best sense of the word.