I was very "eh" on the film. Loved the performances, but not much else.
Sex is one of the most fascinating (and popular) topics that humans frequently analyze and discuss, yet it is rare to find a film that presents it frankly and honestly. Sex sells, undoubtedly, but it is so often left to childish jokes and unnecessary scenes in films that aren’t actually about sex at all. Based on the true story of the remarkable poet and journalist Mark O’Brien, The Sessions is the rare film that handles sex with maturity and insight. It is a shame, then, that the film ends up being so sloppy and ordinary.
This is a film that is entirely elevated by its central performance. John Hawkes paints a uniquely warm and sweet portrait of a man that is unfortunately inflicted with Polio. Mark O’Brien was only able to move his head, and so he spent his entire life lying down, forced to spend most of his time in an iron lung. For a man with this tragic malady, though, Mark was an overwhelmingly positive and inspiring man. Hawkes’ physicality is impressive in that he only has his face to act with. There is no movement or gesturing; only the voice and the eyes. Hawkes is able to cut through all actorly affectations and focus entirely on honesty. His eyes speak volumes and reveal an incredibly genuine soul. His performance moved me on a very base level.
As far as sex is concerned, The Sessions has no fear. It discusses and portrays it with a frankness that is unfortunately rare. Nobody is embarrassed by it and it is never used as a joke or to titillate the audience. Instead this is a story of desire and exploration. Mark O’Brien desperately wants physical intimacy, and as we watch him come to terms with his body and his identity as a sexual being we reflect upon our own sexual activity and behavior. This is particularly fascinating to watch because of Mark’s physical limitations and this aspect is handled with appreciable respect. Sex is a primal and basic human desire and everyone deserves to explore and experience it. It is also something that can reveal things we never knew about ourself or our partners, whether or not sex is used as an act of love or as something more simplistic. In this regard the film is unique and appreciated. Sex is only as enjoyable or special as the partner you share it with, and as Cheryl, the sex surrogate that Mark hires to help explore his desires, Helen Hunt gives her best, most affecting performance in some time. Although her accent tends to waver at the worst times, her work as a woman who is completely open about sex yet also afraid of the passionate feelings she is currently developing is the perfect compliment to John Hawkes. Hunt is unafraid to bare her body and in the process she achieves not exploitation but truth.
In all other regards, though, The Sessions is an unfortunately standard biopic. Writer/director Ben Lewin has a firm and deft grip on the sexual material but he is less confident in his attempt at portraying a broader portrait of Mark’s life. The film is structurally sloppy and visually ugly, mildly playing with linearity in a way that each time struck me as unnecessary. These moments betray the honesty of the scenarios. The film is also riddled with unexplored and unnecessary subplots and characters that feel rushed and detract from the meat of the film. William H. Macy is characteristically enjoyable as Mark’s priest and new friend and Mark’s struggles with religion and sex are fascinating, but each other performer in the film is left dangling. The film attempts to develop Cheryl beyond her relationship with Mark and this material barely works. Her relationship with her husband (Adam Arkin) and son is confused and thin. Moon Bloodgood, Anikka Marks, and W. Earl Brown each play various caretakers that Mark employs but the film is never quite sure how much time to devote to these characters and there are moments that feel far too shallow. Anikka Marks, in particular, gives a terrifically sweet and loving performance that is not allowed to be developed in a substantial fashion.
The film’s final act is hampered by the filmmaker’s need to show us all of Mark’s adult life instead of focusing on the profundity of his sexual exploration. We rush from point a to point b without a moment to grasp the meaning or worth of these moments. It is not a full betrayal of the film’s strong material and performances, but it hinders what could have been something truly special with the need to be a bit too ordinary. Mark O’Brien was an inspiring and wonderful man and John Hawkes’ performance is similarly overwhelming, but despite its greatly appreciated sexual honesty The Sessions as a whole is not quite up to the task.