Dark Humor Fuels Heartwarming Film
Published: Friday, October 19, 2012
Updated: Thursday, October 18, 2012 17:10
Few would expect that a movie about a lonely, severely disabled man with polio would be an enjoyable and optimistic comedy, but that’s just what The Sessions is. Director Ben Lewin and John Hawkes, who plays Mark O’Brien — the real-life basis for this movie — bring this touching tale to the screen in an unexpected and beautifully moving way. I had the pleasure of talking to the two after viewing this film.
O’Brien, who is dependent on an iron lung as a result of his polio, lives on a gurney and is only able to move his neck 90 degrees. The film, instead of taking a more traditional biographical look at his life, focuses on a more obscure aspect of his experience: his sex life.
Mark decides to lose his virginity. He discusses these urges with his priest and confidant Father Brendan (Willam H. Macy) in hilarious scenes containing awkward looks, oversharing and inappropriately explicit details.
“The way the character of the priest developed, I was able to shift a lot of the explicit detail into the confessional,” Lewin said. In fact, the juxtaposition between the sexual encounters and O’Brien’s conversations with the priest present a few of the funniest moments in the film.
Mark eventually learns of Cheryl (Helen Hunt), a self-described sex surrogate who presents herself as the perfect solution for his desires: a teacher for this sexual rookie. An intriguing relationship ensues as the sessions become less professional and more amicable and the lives of both individuals are changed in unexpected ways.
Mark is intriguingly optimistic and looks on the bright side of life despite his unfortunate circumstances. Lewin describes this impressive man as “innately a very witty, sharp individual” whose “use of language was extremely sophisticated.” The humor augments the emotionality of the film, and makes the protagonist that much more likeable and relatable.
The acting in this film is spectacular and also serves to normalize the unusual circumstances and awkward subject matter of the film. John Hawkes interacts wonderfully with both William H. Macy and the frequently nude Helen Hunt in scenes that require varying degrees of humor and emotion. The chemistry between Hawkes and Hunt is particularly impressive in light of the explicit nature of their scenes.
Macy, too, shines in his scenes with Hawkes but does so without removing attention from the protagonist. He is hilarious in his expressions and reactions and makes you wish for a priest with whom you could drink beer and hang out as they do. Hunt, on the other hand, is less funny in her sex surrogate/soccer mom role but is just as important. She brings a needed emotional depth to the film and does so with grace, helping unveil O’Brien’s anxieties and vulnerabilities.
Hawkes’ interactions with the other actors were not the most challenging aspect of his role, however.
“The role was very physically demanding,” he said. In order to more accurately play O’Brien, Hawkes had to contort his body with the help of a soccerball-size object the prop department taped to his back to make his figure was more accurate. This makes the performance even more impressive because the actor is able to portray so many emotions through nothing more than his facial expressions, his voice and 90-degree movement in his neck.
This film is beautiful and manages to inspire optimism through the protagonist, whose happiness overcomes every obstacle. The story is inspiring and constantly toys with your emotions through the vulnerable yet jovial nature of O’Brien, a tricky combination Lewin masterfully crafts into an entertaining, touching and relatable experience. “[The audience] relate[s] more to Mark, a guy who can move his head 90 degrees, than [to] many able-bodied people they see,” Hawkes said.
Go see The Sessions if you are looking for a film that is both inspiring and funny – and you don’t mind a lot of talk about what happens when a man and a woman love each other very much.