MOVIE: ***1/2 (out of 5)
BLU-RAY EXPERIENCE: ** (out of 5)
John Hawkes as MARK
Helen Hunt as CHERYL
William H. Macy as FATHER BRENDAN
Moon Bloodgood as VERA
Annika Marks as AMANDA
Adam Arkin as JOSH
Studio: Fox Searchlight
Directed by: Ben Lewin
BY KEVIN CARR
Before I even had the mind to watch “The Sessions,” I had heard a lot of buzz about it. Oddly enough, it wasn’t mostly for John Hawkes transformative role as a paralyzed man, but rather praise for Helen Hunt’s so-called daring performance (read as: late-40s nude performance) as a sexual surrogate for Hawkes’ character.
When I finally was able to see “The Sessions,” I found Hunt to be the worst part of the film for a variety of reasons. However, as a testament to the film itself, I still quite enjoyed it.
“The Sessions” tells the real-life story of Mark O’Brien (Hawkes), a man who was stricken with polio when he was a child. As a result of the disease, he lives most of his days in an iron lung, with brief respites outside that prison courtesy of a portable respirators. Mark feels like he is unable to have a normal relationship because his condition has stopped him from having any sort of sexual contact. At the advice of his therapist, he hires a sexual surrogate (Hunt) to help him lose his virginity.
The best part of the film is John Hawkes, who manages to transcend the stereotypical roles he normally plays. Rather than the creepy white trash meth head we have seen so many times, Hawkes delivers a tender and warm performance as a man who is physically trapped in his own body.
The real triumph of Hawkes performance isn’t just the typical award-bait delivery we usually see. What makes him human isn’t just the physical torture he went through to achieve the role off-screen. What makes him human and interesting to watch is that he brings a reality to the role. He’s not just a charming man who evokes our sympathies. There are times when he is hard to deal with and irritating, but always in an understandable context.
The real co-star of this film is William H. Macy as Mark’s priest, in whom he confides. The film is strung together with their casual confessionals, and Macy brings his own element of humanity to the role. He’s not a stereotypical priest, nor is he overtly preachy. In fact, having known members of the clergy most of my life, Macy plays the role as a real person behind the collar rather than as the collar itself.
Sadly, the biggest problem is Helen Hunt, regardless of the oodles of accolades she has received this award season. Director Ben Lewin tries to make this a relationship film between Mark and his surrogate, and that just gets in the way of the story.
First, Hunt looks exactly like what you’d expect from a Hollywood actress in her late 40s desperately trying to play younger. Sure, she takes off her clothes and bares herself both literally and figuratively. However, there’s really no courage in that since that’s what has become the standard play for actresses of that age trying to reboot their career.
Quite simply, Hunt looks horrible in this movie, and it’s all in her face. Years of inconsistent plastic surgery has left her face taut in some places and saggy in others. There is literally a scene where her face-lifted eyes and eyeshadow makes her look like Mr. Spock from the original “Star Trek.”
Where the character should be tender and inviting, Hunt brings a coldness to the role, at times seemingly unaware of Mark’s situation and the baggage he carries. The character gets irritated and short with Mark too easily, to the point of being offensive.
The worst part about this angle of the film, which dovetails into the attempt at a relationship picture, is a wholly inappropriate and quite hard to believe moment where she starts to fall for Mark. Here is when it ceases being Mark’s movie, and it becomes the surrogate’s, which is pure fantasy and a massive distraction.
Still, even with the weak performance and character from Helen Hunt, “The Sessions” is a quality flick. It’s unlike any movie you’ll see this year, dealing with delicate subject matter in a refined way. If you missed it in its limited run, it’s worth checking out on DVD or Blu-ray.
The Blu-ray comes with deleted scenes as well as five featurettes: “Writer/Director Ben Lewin Finds Inspiration,” “John Hawkes Becomes Mark O’Brien,” “Helen Hunt As the Sex Surrogate,” “The Women Who Loved Mark O’Brien” and “A Session with the Cast.”
There’s also UltraViolet streaming available from the disc.