The Contenders: The Sessions

It doesn’t take much to give in and enjoy Ben Lewin’s fascinating “The Sessions”. Based on the true story of California based poet and writer Mark O’Brien, the film deals with O’Brien’s struggle with Polio and being forced to use an iron lung the rest of his life. It’s not as grim a subject matter as you may think. O’Brien is played by John Hawkes, a man we will certainly see at next year’s Oscar ceremony, in a performance that may recall Daniel Day Lewis’ in My Left Foot but with more humor and playfulness. Having learned to twist his body, learn to breathe carefully and use a mouth stick to dial a phone and type, Hawkes gets all the mannerisms right and makes us believe that he truly is in this sort of state. It’s no easy feat to act in a lying down position with an iron lung for an entire movie but if done well, this sort of showy performance usually spells awards for you.

O’Brien has been a virgin his entire life and decides to hire a sex surrogate to “de-virginize” him. That surrogate is Cheryl as played by Helen Hunt, in a supporting performance that will also be rewarded with a nomination. Hunt is spectacular bringing a sexy, fierce vibe that has been lacking ever since her “As Good As It Gets” triumph in 1997. The aforementioned sessions involving Hunt’s Cheryl and Hawkes’ Mark are the heart and soul of the picture. Cheryl has a 6 session limit with every disabled client she visits. The sex scenes are incredibly well handled and -dare I say it- the best and sweetest sex scenes I’ve seen all year in any picture. This is in fact the first movie I’ve seen where premature ejaculation is actually dealt with in a sweet, non joking way. Hunt and Hawkes have chemistry to burn in those scenes. Which reveal secrets about both characters that we might not see coming. The screenplay is at its peak in these scenes, where every word counts and every gesture by these characters brings new depth to the story.

Mark is a believer. Visiting church every Sunday and getting the blessing of his priest -playfully played by William H Macy- to go on this journey to lose his virginity. One cannot understand why Mark would still believe in God given his physical state but he jokingly says there must be a god given the fact that someone must have had a sense of humor the day they created him. The playfulness that comes with this movie is a real treat. It’s a small indie gem that gets all the details right. It’s a testament to the way the movie is handled that the vibe is never menacing and that Mark’s situation is never really handled in a way to manipulate your emotions or force you into tears. The film threatens to collapse in “TV movie cliches” and is shot like one too but the performances are just so strong and the story just so good that they elevate the movie into a true contender. “The Sessions” is an undeniably fascinating true story, one that makes you reevaluate your own life in ways you never thought you would. That’s the sign of a great movie.

“The Sessions” is currently coming out into wider release across the country. One might think that its buzz will only build up as it comes into new theatres and shows up in many critics’ top ten lists at year’s end. The good natured feel of the film can only spell crowd-pleaser and it could very well be the hidden surprise nomination for Best Picture. In a category filled with showy fare such as “Life Of Pi”, “Argo”, “Lincoln” and “Silver Linings Playbook” let’s hope it gets some sort of chance.

27 Comments on this Post

  1. How ridiculous and lazy writing of you to say “One cannot understand why Mark would still believe in God given his physical state.” Maybe in your world it’s difficult to understand, but I know MANY physically and mentally disabled people who are strong Christian people. They don’t blame God. They see what God has given them, and they praise him for it and lean on him for strength. There is a peace that passes all understanding, and that’s what physically disabled people experience. My job is taking care of special needs people and I council at a Christian summer camp for physically and mentally disabled children. So I take things like that personally.

  2. Bryce Forestieri

    Do we think this has a chance at winning any awards?

  3. Well, I think Best Actor is a battle between Denzel, Day-Lewis and Phoenix with Hawkes as the dark horse that can maybe potentiallly upset. Whereas Hunt has the best chance to win something, in fact I’m predicting she wins it.

  4. Question … in your opinion, is Helen Hunt supporting or lead? Just curious what you think. It seems like an easily manipulated designation, so I’m surprised that a former lead Oscar winner with a borderline lead/supporting role would go the supporting route.

  5. I have to agree with Jerm. I was dumbfounded at that comment. Whoever wrote that may need to strive for some serious growth in the realm of intelligence-emotion-spirituality.

  6. Lots of naked Helen Hunt screen time will get her the male votes. Hawkes for playing disabled with humanity. Chance for best picture would increase if the box-office was bigger.

  7. unlikely hood

    I liked Helen Hunt the first time she played this part…when it was called The Waterdance. (I’m just gonna keep making this joke until someone notices)

  8. While I think that Hawkes and Hunt are locks for nominations I am unfortunately disappointed that since its initial release (albeit it is a very, very limited release) I haven’t heard a peep about the film. Which is unfortunate because I think it is actually a good film with two great performances. Perhaps when it gets expanded to more theaters there will be talk for this little gem?

  9. @Raygo, Hunt should be a lead but they are playing it smart and safe putting her in supporting. much higher chance of a win for her.

  10. Unlikelyhood, I don’t know if you have actually seen the film, but it so unlike The Waterdance in, oh, every way possible. It is also a superior film to The Waterdance in a variety of different ways.

  11. K. Bowen

    I like this film a lot less than when I saw it. It just has no staying power, IMO.

  12. I agree K, I just didn’t connect with this movie. I saw 5 movies that week though so maybe I was burned out. John Hawkes was amazing though!

  13. I saw “The Sessions” two Fridays ago. John Hawkes, in particular, was fantastic. The comparison to DDL is a good one, not just because of “My Left Foot,” but also the range of performances John Hawkes has shown the past few years. Sure, it’s not as big as the DDL range, but not bad for a “late bloomer.” I hope he takes the gold!

  14. unlikely hood

    Jon thanks – I didn’t even know it was out in my area! Now I will see it.

    It’s funny, I remember Helen Hunt on Inside the Actor’s Studio saying that young actresses really shouldn’t do nudity – unless the part truly demands it. She used herself providing comfort to a paraplegic in The Waterdance as an example. Later I found out she co-wrote the film. Later still I found out she was cast in Mad About You because they liked what they saw in The Waterdance.

    I actually love Helen Hunt – she deserved the hell out of her Oscar, yes over Judi Dench – so I’m not even sure what I’m saying. Maybe I’m saying that there’s a way in which her doing this part reminds me of Hilary Swank doing the lead of Million Dollar Baby years after Boys Don’t Cry. On the one hand, she’s fuckin’ awesome. On the other hand, it’s so inside her wheelhouse, it feels like we should be more careful with the praise.

  15. FYI: Anne Hathaway is winning supporting actress. It’s a bit preordained. Just an observation.

  16. The “god” people in this thread need to get over themselves and stop getting into a tizzy about one innocuous comment.

  17. One cannot understand why Mark would still believe in God given his physical state but he jokingly says there must be a god given the fact that someone must have had a sense of humor the day they created him.

    We could improve that sentence. Replace the word “One” with “Millions of us”

    It’s neat that some of you know disabled people who find strength in their faith. Probably helps if they were born in a comfy country with enough wealth at their disposal so their needs are met. Anybody here know a whole lot of sick and starving babies in Africa too? Born to live and die in abject misery?

    God and his sick sense of humor! What? Not such a cute movie wisecrack anymore?

  18. The Sessions is a decent movie, but that’s about as far as I go with it. I’d give it a solid B and say that Helen Hunt is definitely nominated due to it being a weak year for Supporting Actress, while Hawkes is fighting for one of the last 2 Actor slots (if we’re assuming Lewis, Phoenix and Washington are locks, which we should). It could be John Hawkes, Bradley Cooper, Anthony Hopkins, Bill Murray, Hugh Jackman, Jean Louis Trintignant, Jamie Foxx, Ben Affleck, Suraj Sharma or Phillip Seymour Hoffman (if they run both Master actors in lead) who hear their names called on nomination morning. If Hoffman is indeed campaigning in lead, I think he and Bradley Cooper are in. If not, Cooper will be called along with either Hawkes, Hopkins or Jackman. That’s my best guess. But to me, Hawkes is far from a lock here. The movie is too small and doesn’t have enough widespread love to assume that. There are currently only two scores of 100 on Metacritic for The Sessions, one from Rex Reed and one from Lou Lumenick. While its definitely possible those two critics will place it on their year end list, I highly doubt it will get much love beyond that as far as the critics are concerned. If Hawkes gets nominated its either because Hoffman goes Supporting, the Academy doesn’t like Hitchcock or Les Miserables enough, or Cooper doesn’t have enough respect as an actor no matter how much the Academy likes his movie.

  19. Folar Auguostinnm

    Can this film make it into the top 5? or 6? or 7? or whatever the Academy decides for best pic? Hawkes looks to be amazing in this film.

  20. I saw this film in a screening by 3AW in Melbourne yesterday. John Hawkes’ performance is great. He makes me feel his state of mind through his facial expressions. Bravo!

  21. In what appears to be a weak year in the Best Acress category it seems foolish to maintain that HH’s is a Supporting role. Not that she would win, but it is a co-starring performance and should be recognized as such. And please make more movies Helen, we’ve missed you.

  22. My ex was crying near the end, but I wasn’t as moved…

    Having said that, I agree with Jordan’s review. The actors definitely lift the film up a few notches. The director is definitely a better writer than a director. The beginning 30/45 minutes are so flat (visually), that I was yawning most of the time, except the actors keep it interesting. I think stylistically it’s a bit inconsistent. It got a little bit better at the end, starting with the pivotal sex scene. We have memories of him when he was a child. However, I think the film’s structure has problems. I would’ve happily watch a film that only revolves mainly around Helen Hunt and Hawkes’ characters, then we can know more about them. I know it wants to show the different lovers of his life, but as a result, the focus is lost for me. Also, it didn’t say anything new about the subject. However, the most moving scene for me is the last one with the cat and the empty machine.

    I think Diving Bell and the Butterfly for me is so much stronger, but Hawkes and Hunt deserve their nominations definitely.

  23. When are bloody gonna talk about SKYFALL!!!!
    It is all over the place, the reviews are out…. It’s made out of gold!
    At least 5 nods… Supporting actress, actor, score, cinematography and screenplay

    http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/envelope/goldstandard/la-en-gold-standard-20121108,0,4908260.story

    By Glenn Whipp
    November 7, 2012, 8:19 a.m.
    Sitting here in Best Picture Limbo, thumbing through the year-old magazines (Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively? No way that works!) and waiting for the bell to ring on the remaining Oscar candidates — “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Django Unchained,” “Les Miserables,” the “Hobbit” movie — we can at least report on one sure-fire contender that’s arriving in theaters … not next month but tomorrow…. SKYFALL!!!!

  24. Ryan,

    your comment works if the only concept of God available is that of the 3 major religions in the world

    Some people believe in a God that is not responsible for what happens in the world.

    Some people believe that God is in all of us, and so it us who shape our reality.

    Why should a disabled person’s concept of God be limited to that of Christianity, Judaism, or Islam?

  25. Why should a disabled person’s concept of God be limited to that of Christianity

    I’m talking about The Sessions. Bill Macy appears to be a catholic priest in The Sessions. Maybe I’m wrong. But it looks to me on the surface evidence that the real-life person and the character in the film was a Catholic.

    EDIT: yes, this is easy to confirm.

    Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) is 38, single, Catholic, confined to an iron lung for most of his hours (due to a crippling bout of childhood polio)

  26. Yes, it was all about Catholic faith and even Catholic guilt. It is mentioned in many parts of the movie…

  27. julian the emperor

    Chrisflick:

    I’m tired of hearing this automatic response about it being a weak year for women in film. It is some kind of malignant meme that has infested a lot of readers’ minds just because a few bloggers have a thing against independent (as well as foreign language) filmmaking. Read Guy Lodge’s very perceptive article on InContention from today. This has been nagging me for awhile and it’s great to see someone addressing it with such force, elegance and clarity.
    Have you seen Riva in Amour? That’s a performance of a lifetime. And besides, performances in less prestigious productions than the usual Oscar fare get a chance to be recognized this way (Cotillard, Wallis among them). I find this years slate of possible nominees so much more rewarding than having a field consisting of prestige bait like what we got from Streep, Close, Williams et al last year. We should feel lucky that we don’t have to deal with that kind of obviousness this season. Embrace that diversity. As Guy says: “The best actress race is only as weak as voters choose to make it”. So true.

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