The story of Mark O’Brien is a phenomenal one of true emotional resonance and strength. A journalist, essayist, and poet based in California, O’Brien spent much of his life condemned to an iron lung.
And then, at the age of 38, O’Brien pursued the services of a sex surrogate named Cheryl Cohen-Greene in hopes of finally losing his virginity. Judd Apatow and Steve Carell have nothing on the poignancy of this true-life, middle-aged virgin.
“The Sessions,” an unfortunately bland retelling of this amazing story, is something that feels more like a letdown than a film worthy of O’Brien’s interesting, heartfelt, humorous, and horny legacy. Often enough, it strikes the right chords but these melodies are limited primarily to a select few moments that shine above the rest, and it is a film carried mostly by a remarkable performance from very talented actor John Hawkes as O’Brien.
It’s a simple film limited mostly to the set pieces of a bedroom and a church — the former capturing the “sessions” between O’Brien and his sex surrogate, Cheryl (Helen Hunt), to the candid, habitually hilarious conversations between O’Brien and his priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy).
Macy is a carefree force on screen, and the dialogue between him and Hawkes offers some of the movie’s best moments — finding awkward hilarity in a disabled man frankly discussing his “full penetration” with a man of God. I could watch an entire film consisting solely of the actor’s uproarious reaction shots. If only Macy wasn’t out-acted by his implausible mane of hair that would be nonexistent atop a priest’s head in the ’80s era this film is set.
The rest of the film, and unfortunately so, is riddled with a lack of momentum and a tediousness as frank as the movie’s sexuality. I was constantly in awe of Hawkes’s performance, and constantly in agony over Helen Hunt’s. I know 5-year-olds with more accurate Boston accents than the one Hunt painfully tries to recreate in every line that comes from her character’s mouth.
But Hawkes, in an awards-darling role that will inevitably snatch up various honors by the year’s end, showcases acting that exhibits an impressive dedication to physical performance. Capturing O’Brien’s twisted frame, deliberate breathing and speaking style, and making this disability believable are all achieved effortlessly by Hawkes. It’s a hell of a performance in one dud of a film.
“The Sessions” stands as bare as Helen Hunt’s often-nude performance as Cheryl, and about as static as the immobile presence of Hawkes’s disabled protagonist. It progresses slowly and while I sensed the development of a bond between these two characters, I never quite believed it.
The film strips down into a sexual openness that is not often achieved by many American releases, but I often wished there were emotions to match the actions. It is entirely daring in what it chooses to show, but rather tame in what it chooses to say.
With perhaps more skilled direction (the movie almost always feels like it belongs on Lifetime) and more momentum, O’Brien’s remarkable story could have been brought to the screen with an emotional timbre worthy of its source. Instead, we get an award-mongering tale with a grand performance at its center, but barely anything else. The biggest disability with “The Sessions” is one of emotion.
The Sessions 2 out of 4 Stars