Review by The Isolated Moviegoer:
As polio survivor Mark O’Brien in Ben Lewin’s The Sessions, John Hawkes has a difficult acting assignment. A Berkeley graduate turned poet/journalist, Mark’s life is confined to lying horizontal, either in an iron lung or on a hospital gurney with portable oxygen tanks. Unable to move any part of his body besides his head, Hawkes must therefore rely on his face and voice alone to convey this character.
Many have found his performance stunning, lauding him as the Best Actor Oscar favorite since the film’s Sundance premiere in January, and he certainly has a shot. If there’s anything the Academy loves more than an actor playing a person with a disability, it’s a film based on a true story. Both factors are in Hawkes’ favor here, and while there may very well be a fantastic turn hiding somewhere in The Sessions, his turn is overshadowed by weak writing and questionable filmmaking choices, the combination of which keeps the film small and ineffective.
A sure-fire inspirational figure at hand, the film’s focus is sadly microscopic. Zeroing in on 36-year-old Mark’s desire to lose his virginity, our protagonist is barely known outside of his carnal inexperience. Nearly every conversation concerns sex, and though Mark’s struggles are intriguing, they’re presented in a bland, Hallmark Movie Channel manner, devoid of the gusto and edginess that such a quest suggests.
Mark’s talks eventually lead him to sex therapist Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Helen Hunt), whose work involves freeing clients of inhibitions that prevent their enjoyment of sex. With the blessing of his priest (William H. Macy), who wonders on some level how this woman is different from a prostitute, Mark hires Cheryl and her special skill set. Together in the bedroom, she guides him through his myriad sexual hangups, the exploration of which proves more complicated than either imagined.
Hunt has received similar award-worthy praise, and though the frankness with which she exposes her body is commendable, nudity alone does not make a great performance. Encouraging Mark to embrace his sexuality, her Cheryl sounds like an especially dull and unsexy narrator of a Dr. Ruth book. Macy is similarly boring as the quasi-hippie Father Brendan (this is Berkeley, after all) and Adam Arkin is all but non-existent as Cheryl’s husband, a role that could have been fascinating if Lewin had any feel for the story.
More disconcerting is the way Lewin films Mark. For the majority of The Sessions, the director shoots Hawkes from the side, making for an uncomfortable visual experience. Due to this perpendicular juxtaposition, there’s a desire to tilt one’s head 90 degrees to the left to better see Hawkes, though doing so is, of course, impractical. The composition established from the start, there’s a instant disconnect with the performance and, as an extension, the film itself.
At least The Sessions’ heart is in the right place. Lewin himself is a polio survivor, and though Mark’s tale is a clear passion project for him, the film lacks the cinematic fire that the story suggests. Relying far too much on nudity’s shock value and the simple sight of Mark’s physical condition, Lewin fails to convey his subject’s situation in an engaging manner. As a result, Mark remains a stranger outside of the bedroom and little more than a casual acquaintance within.
Rated R for strong sexuality including graphic nudity and frank dialogue.
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