John Hawkes has emerged as one of the finest chameleon-like character actors of our time, in films like Winter’s Bone, Martha Marcy May Marlene, and Higher Ground. With his performance in The Sessions he reaches a new plateau, transforming himself into the wry, self-deprecating journalist Mark O’Brien, a polio victim who spends most of his time in an iron lung, tended to by a succession of caregivers. (To see the real O’Brien, check out Jessica Yu’s documentary Breathing Lessons.)
At the age of 38 O’Brien, a practicing Catholic, decides that he wants to experience sex for the first time, and receives the (reluctant) approval of his hip parish priest, played by William H. Macy. To that end he hires a sex surrogate, played with disarming forthrightness by Helen Hunt. Like the priest and O’Brien’s other helpers, she can’t maintain her strictly-business attitude during the time she spends with her client, for one simple reason: he is a remarkable man.
To label this offbeat screen fodder is an understatement. But Aussie writer-director Ben Lewin paints a portrait of O’Brien that is bracing and poignant at the same time. This is not a sweeping statement about disability: it’s a look at one particular man who refused to be defined, let alone limited, by his condition.
There are no missteps along the way and it’s hard to take your eyes off the screen, even during the most awkward and intimate moments. That’s because it all seems genuine.
At the heart of this uniquely compelling film is a performance that impels us to think about Mark O’Brien, not John Hawkes...but when it’s over we realize what an extraordinary feat we’ve witnessed. Some actors seem to be courting award attention when they play a disabled character, and many have been rewarded for their efforts. I get the impression that Hawkes is simply a dedicated actor whose only goal is to make us believe he is the character he’s impersonating. He succeeds with flying colors.