The Sessions, ladies and gentlemen, almost certainly the most grown-up, non-giggly, frank depiction of emotionally meaningful sexual relations between thoughtful adults that will have any sort of general distribution in U.S. movie theaters in this or any of the next several years. It is altogether worthy of your time, if you are the sort of person who believes - and who doesn't? - that we'd all be better off if there were more insightful, character-driven films made for thinking people. How badly I wish I liked it more.
The film is adapted from the life of California poet Mark O'Brien - subject of the Oscar winning 1996 short documentary Breathing Lessons - who suffered a bout with polio at the age of six that left him with muscles too weak to move anything below the neck, though he was able to feel; spending most of his time in an iron lung, he arrived in 1988, at 38 years of age without ever having experienced much of what life has to offer, including sex; and this is where we arrive at the plot of the film. For it was in 1988 that O'Brien worked with a sex surrogate, a professional therapist who has sexual relations with patients who are, for whatever reason, unable to do so normally. The Sessions - renamed from Six Sessions, and further renamed from The Surrogate, the title which it wore at Sundance in January, 2012 - is concerned, almost exclusively, with this process: how O'Brien learned of sex surrogacy, and how he built a relationship of trust with surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene.
This story comes to us via writer-director Ben Lewin, himself a polio survivor (though not with remotely as severe consequences), and along with its intently no-big-deal-ish look at human sexuality, the next best thing about The Sessions is its completely straightforward and non-histrionic look at what constituted O'Brien's daily life, simple and basic and not at all exploitative, and more concerned with the character-driven question of "how does a man cope with this kind of life?" than with the message movie question of "what shall the audience learn from this?", for thankfully, The Sessions emphatically remains free of mumbly, warm and fuzzy sentiments about how we should all learn to be better and more joyous people from the example of this optimistic cripple, or whatever. It wants to tell Mark O'Brien's story, and it tells it with dignity and intelligence, and leaves the sentiment entirely up to us.
Which is fine and all, but Lewin is not the most supple and inventive of filmmakers (the most interesting thing about his filmography is that his first film, the documentary Welcome to Britain, was also Roger Deakins's first feature-length project), and The Sessions doesn't do much to make its subject matter any more lively, relying almost completely - and, it must be confessed, justifiably - on the interest of O'Brien's life to drive his entire movie. Does everything need to be creative and intelligently-filmed? I guess not, though I'd certainly be happier if all the "trapped in a dysfunctional body" movies were more like the broken but ambitious The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and not like the handsomely milquetoast The Sea Inside. Which is actually a really good, if superficial, point of comparison: like that 2004 Spanish picture, The Sessions is very humanist, attacks a subject not often seen in the movies with intelligence, and has been shot with a level of unimaginative competence that would drift into boredom if not for the fireworks of a central performance which cannot entirely rise out of gimmickry - for how could even the greatest actor succeed at making "character who cannot move anything below the neck" entirely free of gimmickry? - but does work so interesting and alert above and beyond the gimmick that he personally justifies the whole project even if only as an acting showcase.
In the case of The Sessions, that actor is John Hawkes, who has been steadily creeping up in the cinematic consciousness for years now - critically, at least, he's been probably the most successful alumnus of television masterpiece Deadwood - and who now receives the star vehicle that ought to make his transformation into Character Actor We All Love and Cherish complete. Armed with only a highly particular style of speaking and a wheelbarrow full of good-natured sarcasm, Hawkes is able to use just the sound of his voice and the twinkle in his eyes to sell a complex, nuanced performance, so complete that at times it's easy to forget that his O'Brien is a prisoner in his own body. While it's not a "best of the year" style performance like the buzz would have it - if Hawkes does not give into the gimmick hardly ever, he also doesn't really challenge it - it's good enough work to earn a spot in the conversation for what the best of the year might be, and certainly good enough to elevate the entirety of the film; which, since the film exists, in a sense, only to facilitate this kind of performance, makes sense.
He's matched by nobody, and really can't be, given the script: as surrogate Cheryl, Helen Hunt gives what critics like to euphemistically call a "brave" performance, which translates to "she's famous, and gets naked a lot". A lot. It is, in fact, a sign of considerable comfort with and control over one's physical acting to be as supremely casual naked as Hunt is, and to speak about frank sexual topics in a relaxed way. On the other hand, she's not "doing" anything besides shoring up the film's theme, and she's doing it with a Boston accent that, when she bothers with it at all, sounds more like a joke than anything real. William H. Macy vanishes inside a puffy hairdo as a Catholic priest who helps guide O'Brien through the moral tangle of this strange new world of sexual surrogacy; and if there's anyone in the supporting cast who made much of an impression on me at all, it was Moon Bloodgood as Vera, O'Brien's pleasant and knowing assistant.
But it's really the Hawkes Show, straight down the line, and nothing about the rest of the film tries to get in the way of that basic goal: watch this actor portray that man, in a nuanced and insightful way. That, plus the subdued take on a provocative topic makes The Sessions above all an excessively tasteful movie; and while that is surely better than the alternative, it doesn't make for an especially scintillating movie, just a solid, wildly unremarkable one.