Fittingly, the minuscule indie drama The Sessions, a bitsy biopic about the sexual awakening of iron lung inhabitant Mark O’Brien, is a movie of give and take. The actors give the most, while writer/director Ben Lewin, adapting the story from an article O’Brien wrote, mostly takes. It’s a bit of a dysfunctional relationship in some ways, but ultimately a sweetly successful one. The performances elevate the movie, while Lewin’s plain, simple style gives the actors an unpretentious stage upon which they can conjure a gentle sense of authenticity. It’s a low-key move by the director, but it comes with enough give to balance, if shakily, all that take.
Stepping back and giving the actors room to operate in front of an unadventurous camera is Lewin’s safe, though sincere way of getting to the core of the movie’s personal themes. There’s a lightness to Lewin’s touch that is initially a bit airy, but perhaps ultimately trickier than it first appears. Then again, Lewin nearly betrays that lightness during moments when he tries to blandly tap into more sentimental corners of the narrative, so he clearly has good reasons for wanting to stay in his comfort zone. The surprising thing about Lewin’s script and direction is how funny The Sessions is, despite dealing with the potentially sad tale of a nearly forty-year-old virgin confined to a metal container for most of his daily life and to a gurney during those times when he ventures outside the iron lung.
His body wracked by polio since childhood, Mark (John Hawkes) is a poet and journalist living in San Francisco and keeping himself entertained with a biting sense of humor. When his relationship with a friendly and pretty attendant (Annika Marks) acts as a reminder of the potential pleasures he’s missing out on, Mark seeks sex therapy and soon finds himself in the hands of a sex surrogate named Cheryl (Helen Hunt). Cheryl’s job actually includes having sex with her clients, but during a limited number of sessions and with a focus on therapeutic resolve.
Mark appears to benefit greatly from his sessions with Cheryl, who is facing her own personal challenges, both at home and internally as she begins to feel something for Mark. It’s a subplot that’s left hanging, but even with these hints, Mark remains the main focus. He finds poetic inspiration in his sexual encounters and finally feels the euphoric joy of overcoming an obstacle he previously thought insurmountable. With the loss of his virginity out of the way, Mark achieves a certain freedom that opens up the emotional space he requires to move forward.
Throughout the process, Mark keeps his sense of humor intact, which provides The Sessions with enough flavor to overcome its generic visual identity. The photography routinely falls flat, but the movie finds solace in its script full of feisty attitude. Despite the rotten physical situation that Mark has been in for most of his life, he still finds ways to deflect the pain by making fun of it, even slyly remarking that his Catholic faith and belief in God is important because it gives him someone to blame for his unfortunate condition. Hawkes brings this aspect of Mark to cinematic life with careful commitment.
Completely convincing in his nearly paralyzed state, Hawkes performs each scene with only minimal movements of his head available to him for physical expression. The rest of his performance is contained in the nasally croak of his voice, a quietly charismatic sound that contains deep characterization in the various utterances of words both dramatically poetic and smarmily comedic. This is all indicative of Hawkes’ impressive range. In the last couple years, he turned in excellent performances as intimidatingly creepy characters in “Winter’s Bone” and “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” but now switches gears entirely and beautifully portrays a character who is lovable, warm, and completely inviting. His transformative ability is on dazzling display here.
Helen Hunt also turns in a very strong performance, proudly stripping down for the various sessions and helping Lewin explore the theme of sexuality as refreshingly and openly as he wants to. Hunt has been an elusive presence on the big screen of late and yet she settles into the role quickly and with apparent ease. Cheryl is a confident woman capable of giving Mark the exact care he requires. Hunt has to deal with a somewhat lazily scripted arc, but she especially shines in her scenes alongside Hawkes, the two actors feeding off each other’s energies. Part of the charm of The Sessions is how frankly and almost casually it approaches the theme of sex. Lewin doesn’t shy away from nudity or open discussions of sexual activity, which rather boldly breaks down the wall of cinematic taboos to open up the space in which Hawkes and Hunt can flourish.
Lewin’s strengths lie in these decisions, so The Sessions remains a likable little picture that works well enough that I can forgive the director for such stumbles as a bargain bin flashback and lame conclusion that feels torn from the pages of some biopic handbook. Yes, these sessions are presented in predictably pedestrian packaging, complete with weepy score (fine, though forgettable work by Marco Beltrami) and unimaginatively static camera work that fails to really put us in Mark’s anchored situation. But the participants in The Sessions are a lively pair given great depth by a couple of strong performers who enjoyably harness the script’s comedic potential. Toss in William H. Macy as a helpful priest who sort of lives vicariously through Mark’s sexual adventures and the movie has a playful ensemble to liven up the proceedings. The Sessions sure has a stale look and feel, but at least its cast and attitude and sense of humor are fresh.