A stationary John Hawkes is moving in 'The Sessions'
They could have called it “The 38-Year-Old Virgin.”
In January, when Ben Lewin's beautiful, funny film about the quadriplegic poet and journalist Mark O'Brien premiered at the Sundance Film Festival - winning two big prizes - it was called “The Surrogate.” Now, as it rolls into theaters and seeks much deserved awards-season attention, it has been redubbed “The Sessions.”
It is, whatever you call it, quite wonderful - a life-affirming story about the goodness in people's hearts, the humor and compassion and love we are capable of. And it only takes a man who spent most of his life in an iron lung to point the way.
A victim of polio, O'Brien - portrayed by John Hawkes, using a lovely, nasal voice that gives even his most desperate entreaties a note of playful irony - can function for a few hours a day outside his Jules Verne-like contraption. In fact, before O'Brien was deemed a safety hazard on the streets of his hometown, Berkeley, Calif., he used a motorized gurney (controlled by a breathing tube) to get from Point A to Point B.
And here he is, age 38, a perceptive gent who doesn't expect to be around all that much longer, looking to get to Point S, as in sex. He wants to know what it's like to be with a woman, physically, and he seeks counsel from his priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy), to determine whether God will approve of his endeavor. Or, if not approve, at least cast his cosmic eye the other way.
Brendan, with his long hair and long looks - and the “vague ideas about life and death that we priests are equipped with” - tells his parishioner to go forth and do the deed. (Macy is terrifically amusing here.)
And so O'Brien contacts a sex surrogate. Her name is Cheryl. And she is played with just the right mix of clinical distance and new age-y free-spiritedness by Helen Hunt. They will have six sessions together - enough time for Mark to learn how things work, and to hopefully experience the pleasures to be had in a sexual union. And then they will be done.
Of course, it isn't that simple. O'Brien may be inhabiting a body that splays and spindles in hopeless knots, but his intellect is agile and engaged. The man speaks with honesty. He dreams. He yearns. He is smart and quick and utterly charming. Cheryl gets to know Mark - yes, in the biblical sense, but also more intimately - and it throws her carefully controlled world, and marriage (Adam Arkin is the spouse), out of whack.
Lewin, a British director who himself contracted polio as a child, has adapted O'Brien's writings (a magazine article, “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate,” and a memoir, “How I Became a Human Being: A Disabled Man's Quest for Independence”) with symmetry and grace, and without cheap sentiment. And he made a brilliant choice in Hawkes, nominated for a supporting-actor Oscar for his turn as an Ozarks meth dealer in “Winter's Bone.” Here, using only his tilted head, his eyes, nose, and mouth and that quizzical voice, Hawkes brings O'Brien to life.
It's a performance from the inside out, and it honors not only O'Brien, but the best in all of us.
Steven Rea is a staff writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer.
• 4 stars
• Directed by Ben Lewin. With John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy, Adam Arkin, and Moon Bloodgood
• R for sex, nudity, profanity, adult themes-
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Open records office orders Mt. Lebanon to release deer cull emails
- McIntyre students hope Buddy Bench is beneficial to all
- Tomlin: Steelers as healthy as can be expected at this point in season
- Arrest made in West End bank robbery
- Pitt’s Dixon monitoring minutes
- Steelers not giving up on wresting AFC North from Bengals
- Bowl destination is at stake for Pitt football in regular-season finale
- Rookie linebacker Chickillo adjusting to role with Steelers
- Stocks shake off Middle East tensions, drop in consumer confidence
- Vatican puts 5 on trial for leaks
- Witnesses recount Franklin Regional stabbing