In Ben Lewin’s The Sessions, John Hawkes takes on the kind of role that earns Academy Awards, in the kind of film that doesn’t. While his performance is humble and low-key rather than Oscar-tastically bombastic, his recent dynamic, forceful parts in films like Winter’s Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene make it hard to forget that the wheezy-voiced, twisted, unmoving man onscreen in The Sessions is an actor in the kind of stunty role that normally serves as awards-bait: a disabled man battling a disease and fighting for dignity. Hawkes does an excellent job of playing a paralyzed, emaciated polio sufferer, and if anything, the way he can’t fully disappear into the role makes it more amazing to watch him. But while his role feels like an import from an Oscar-bait prestige picture, the film around him has different aims. It’s funny and overtly sexual, rather than serious and stuffy, and it’s supremely uninterested in Oscar-esque gravitas.
Hawkes stars as real-life journalist and poet Mark O’Brien, who was paralyzed from the neck down by a childhood bout of polio, and relied on long daily stretches in an iron lung to survive. Nonetheless, he doggedly graduated from college, attended grad school, founded a small press, published several books of his poetry, starred in an Oscar-winning short documentary (“Breathing Lessons”), and worked as a professional writer. The Sessions is based on an article he wrote for The Sun, titled “On Seeing A Sex Surrogate,” about his decision, at age 38, to lose his virginity. After consulting a benevolent, philosophical priest (William H. Macy, who appears in a handful of inessential but amusing scenes) and suffering through an unrequited love for one of his series of assistants, he hires a sexual therapist (Helen Hunt) to walk him through the steps of intercourse. Hunt is perfectly direct with him about the fact that she’s happily married with a child, they can only meet six times (a never-explained, seemingly randomly chosen number), and that they aren’t forming a long-term relationship. And the movie, to its credit, sticks by that rather than turning into a rom-com about two unlikely people finding each other. For better and worse, it’s a thoughtful, wry film about sexuality and love that doesn’t take the obvious paths.
Like the recent For A Good Time, Call…, The Sessions is also admirably frank and funny about sex, but with a different tone: sweet instead of raunchy, and plaintive instead of snickering and vulgar. Hunt’s character in particular treats sex in a matter-of-fact, even clinical way, rapidly stripping for her first session with Hawkes in a way that bespeaks long practice, no self-consciousness, and an attitude that eroticism is more in the mind than the body. For his part, Hawkes is adorably eager and embarrassed, and the film is largely about how Hunt helps him get over the latter. The humor helps immensely. The Sessions perpetually walks a fine line, allowing in enough laughter to deflate any pretension or preciousness, and to acknowledge and alleviate the awkwardness, while never becoming a comedy or outright mocking Hawkes’ adolescent nervous excitement. Lewin’s screenplay suggests O’Brien must have had an easygoing, self-effacing, but not bitter sense of comedy in order to survive in his condition; the whole film echoes his knack for balance and practicality.
The Sessions’ primary flaw is that it’s fairly formless, without much narrative drive. The abrupt ending logically follows what comes before, but doesn’t connect to it particularly well, and the choice to elide over Hawkes’ post-sessions life robs those sessions of some of their significance. But while he and Hunt are experiencing their unhurried time together, it’s a film like no other: a sexual coming-of-age story about adults, and unabashedly for them as well.