When I try to imagine how I’d respond to the ordeal of losing the ability to move my body from the neck down and spending decades dependent on an iron lung, my first thought is not that it would inspire me to write poetry. So, whatever else we’re dealing with in The Sessions, we’re dealing with a story about a most unusual man. His name was Mark O’Brien, and this is the second movie to be made about him.
The first — Jessica Yu’s 1996 short “Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien” — won an Oscar. Many people who follow and handicap such things are expecting The Sessions to win at least one, as well. Of course, these are the same folks who’ve been buzzing about Argo and Flight, two entertainments that didn’t exactly signal the start of awards season, in my humble opinion. This time, though, I think they’ve got it right.
Not since Robert DeNiro have I watched an actor come out of nowhere to emerge as a dominant industry shape-shifter the way John Hawkes has over the past decade. If you’ve seen his work in pictures such as Winter’s Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene, you’ll be absolutely taken aback by the performance he gives here. It’s a stunning departure from the dark roles he’s best known for, and nothing short of uncanny. With only his face and voice to use as instruments, Hawkes creates a character of almost inconceivable depth and richness.
When we’re first introduced to O’Brien, he’s 38 and working as a writer in Berkeley. Famous for tooling around campus on his electrically powered gurney, he’s succeeded in earning a journalism degree and establishing himself as the go-to guy for articles related to disability, in addition to becoming a published poet.
Movies have been made about accomplishments far less significant than these, especially given the conditions of O’Brien’s life. Attendants assist with his most intimate needs; he types with a mouth-stick held in his teeth and must spend all but a few hours each day locked in something that looks like a cross between a coffin and a miniature sub.
But The Sessions is about a different sort of achievement. Stricken by polio at the age of 6, O’Brien is “approaching his use-by date,” as he puts it to a sympathetic priest (William H. Macy), and he doesn’t fancy the idea of going his whole life without ever knowing a woman “in the biblical sense.”
Enter a licensed surrogate, played by Helen Hunt, following a few bungled attempts, Hawkes’ nerve-wracked character (not exactly a spoiler) succeeds in his aim. The actress turns in a soulful, assured performance in the role of a wife and mother who makes her living teaching men the skills they’ll need to enjoy intimacy with other women. “Unlike a prostitute,” she jokes, “I don’t want your return business.”
Written and directed by Ben Lewin (who himself suffered from polio and walks with braces), the movie offers an unusually frank and frequently humorous meditation on the transformative power of connection. The filmmaker gives the historical record the Hollywood treatment. Lewin suggests, for example, that things between O’Brien and surrogate Cheryl Cohen-Greene took a turn for the romantic when they never actually did.
But, hey, this isn’t supposed to be a documentary. For the facts of the matter, one can always hop online and read “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate,” the 1990 article by O’Brien that inspired the screenplay. For a smart and moving spin on real-life events, we now have this first-rate film.