Movie Review: THE SESSIONS

Helen Hunt and John Hawkes in “The Sessions”

Release date: October 19, 2012 (ltd.); wider release November 2, 2012
Written and Directed by: Ben Lewin
Cast: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy, Moon Bloodgood, Annika Marks
Rating: R; Running Time: 95 minutes

It’s no wonder that The Sessions (formerly entitled The Surrogate) garnered two Sundance awards (Audience Award – U.S. Dramatic, and Special Jury Prize for Ensemble Acting). It’s also no wonder that this film set the bar for Sundance 2012 film acquisitions, with Fox Searchlight paying out $6 million for worldwide distribution. Because this fact-based narrative, based on the bold decision of 38-year-old Berkeley journalist and poet Mark O’Brien to experience sexual love – his affliction with polio and confinement to an iron lung notwithstanding – is nothing short of magnificent.

Formidable subject matter aside, this story could have easily turned into a maudlin treatise on how polio victims are humans, too. But guided by filmmaker Ben Lewin’s deft, light handling, John Hawkes’ Mark is an eloquent and remarkably funny human being who yearns for love just as much as the next fellow. The fact that he’s imprisoned in an iron lung, paralyzed from the neck down (allowed a few short hours of freedom a day via a portable respirator), certainly makes his existence much more challenging than the norm. But the focus stays on the man, rather than the machine. (If this story sounds familiar, Jessica Yu’s 1996 documentary on Mark O’Brien entitled Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien won the Oscar for Best Short.)

Having made impressive splashes as a charismatic cult leader in 2011′s Martha Marcy May Marlene, a dangerous meth addict with an unexpected soft spot for his niece in Winter’s Bone (earning him Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor), and the ever-optimistic yet shrewd Sol in HBO’s Deadwood, John Hawkes adds to his formidable resume with Mark, The Sessions‘ heart and soul. Adopting a feeble voice, and relying on a large piece of uncomfortable foam (nicknamed “The Torture Ball”) to contort his spine, he undergoes a physical manifestation reminiscent of Daniel Day Lewis’ Christy Brown in My Left Foot. His face registers everything: sagacity, longing, wit. We love this man for his indomitable spirit to take it all on, no matter his terror, fear of rejection and the ever-present shadow of death that mindfully holds him in a tight embrace – much tighter than any lover could.


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