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John Hawkes continues to amaze with his chameleon-like embodiment of unusual characters. This time, he plays Marc O'Brien, a 36 year-old polio victim who has spent his life horizontal in an iron lung. Based on a true story, O'Brien is a poet and a romantic, who has never had a sexual experience. After consulting his priest, ( William H. Macy perfectly embodies the Berkeley radical father), he contacts a therapist and hooks up with a sexual surrogate, Helen Hunt. Their "sessions" form the heart of this tender film, and take both the audience and Marc on a journey of self-awareness and discovery. Hawkes is simply amazing. He imbues the character with innocence, hope and wry humor in what can only be described as a tour de force performance. Hunt is equally skilled in her role, combining professionalism, playfulness, sensuality, and compassion in series of sessions which require full nudity. Both actors are courageous in their pursuit of truth and humanity and achieve Oscar caliber performances, thanks to the sensitive direction of writer/director Ben Lewin.
The niche subject matter will not be to everyone's taste but the handling of it by the artful Ben Lewin has been most skillfully and sensitively handled. The casting, particularly Helen Hunt, is ideal and Ben's subtle Jewish humour adds just the right touch to what could so easily have become a difficult story to keep on the move. As the film progressed I became increasingly intrigued by how it might end but it never loses interest and the combination of a tight script, good acting and very sensitive direction keeps the tension right to the end. Although a low budget production, it never feels like it and is vastly more satisfying than the big name run-of-the-mill rubbish Hollywood churns out far too often. This is a rewarding film in its own right and a valuable study into how tough life is for the seriously disabled. It provides a great service to everyone caught in such extreme circumstances and deserves success.
"The Sessions" is a sensitive and poignant film with an outstanding performance by John Hawkes as poet Mark O'Brien a childhood victim of polio that left him paralyzed from the neck down and dependent on personal attendants and an iron lung that enables him to survive the nights without suffocating. In voice and facial expression he manages to perfectly capture the life of a severely disabled man who likes to push against boundaries and retains a sense of humor--he tells someone that he believes in God because he needs to blame someone. This role is quite a departure for Hawkes who gave terrific performances in films like "Winter's Bone" and "Martha Marcy May Marlene" where he was Jennifer Lawrence's loner brother and a deranged cult leader haunting Elizabeth Olsen. Helen Hunt is memorable as the sex surrogate to whom O'Brien turns to help him achieve his dream of sexual intimacy with a woman. A professional as well as a wife and mother she doesn't hesitate to take exception with the notion that she is some kind of prostitute and clearly she isn't. William H Macy is the local parish priest whom O'Brien a devout Catholic relies on for advice and encouragement. There's plenty of wry humor watching Macy trying to figure it all out as he knows he's in uncharted waters. Based on a magazine essay director/writer Ben Lewin handles this unusual subject matter with great sensitivity and intelligence. This isn't some Hallmark TV movie it's a mature, honest film that isn't going to insult your intelligence. Definitely worth seeing.
The Sessions tells the inspirational true story of Mark O'Brien (John
Hawkes), a poet/journalist who has an iron lung and is paralyzed from
the neck down due to polio. At age 36 he decides to finally lose his
virginity and with the support of his friend/priest (William H. Macy)
hires a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt).
John Hawkes (Winter's Bone, Martha Marcy May Marlene) has been gathering accolades for his performance in The Sessions and with good reason. He not only delivers on the physical demands of such a role but he manages to encapsulate the emotions of a man with a broken body but a good heart. It's an impressive performance that should see him at least receive an Oscar nomination come next years awards. Hawkes is almost matched by Helen Hunt. She bares all in a brave role that depicts a woman struggling with her job and her emotions. These two performances are some of the best (so far) this year. William H. Macy also gives a good performance as a likable priest that O'Brien is able to confide in.
As a whole, the film doesn't shy away from much. The sex "therapy" sessions are depicted as realistically as possible and are both funny and touching (no pun intended). Ben Lewin's direction is simple yet it manages to adequately depict O'Brien's world without sensationalizing it. It's an all round simple tale that is well told. This is an adult drama that will make you laugh, cry and look more positively at your own life. There aren't many films that do that these days.
Been a little while since I've seen a film that's as touching and
moving as "The Sessions" which is based on the real life story of a
California man named Mark O' Brien. And it's certainly a little
different O' Brien(in a top notch and excellent performance from John
Hawkes)a poet and journalist is a man with talent, but tragically he's
confined to an iron lung due to a kid bout with polio. Then at the age
of 38 Mark has made the big decision to lose his virginity. This will
be a big impact on Mark's life so he consults the advice of his ever
honest priest Father Brendan(in a good supporting turn from veteran
William H. Macy)who oddly enough gives a good hearted thumbs up.
This pleasure changing experiment will have to be done with the help of a professional sex surrogate and this lady is a strong and tough wife and mother who makes her living helping others enter Cheryl(in a strong and direct turn from Helen Hunt)who can make everything appear like she's the plain Jane girl from next door. Slowly but surely these encounters or sessions between her and Mark produce results of feeling, relaxation, mind changing, and comfort, all before they finally approach the pleasure point! Along the way this picture is told with honesty and much of the scenes are humor mixed with blunt and brash serious feel of a man being set free toward a new feeling of pleasure freedom finally! Overall the "Sessions" is a film of journey and it shows how the discovery of sexual pleasure can bring out emotional freedom that's touching and memorable even though the scenes are brash with skin and memorable and educational with thought. This film is a real inspirational winner and the chemistry between Helen Hunt and John Hawkes is in top notch form as director Ben Lewin made a real and true winner.
The Sessions (2012)
**** (out of 4)
Terrific adult drama about Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes), a man who has been living in an iron lung since the age of six due to polio. At the age of 38 he confides to his priest (William H. Macy) that he wants to know the touch of a woman so he hires a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt). With a story like this there are just so many ways that it could have failed but writer-director Ben Lewin does a terrific job as do to the leads and in the end THE SESSIONS really turns into a touching movie. I really wasn't sure what to expect going in but this actually turned out to be a terrific character study through a group of sex sessions, which at first seemed like a far-fetched idea until you learn that it's actually based on a real guy and on the article he wrote. What makes the film work so well is that both characters are fully formed and it's especially important when it comes to O'Brien since we're going on this journey with his as he tries to deal with his disease and the physical limitations he has. The performance from Hawkes is so remarkable because he has to act pretty much just using his head. Since the majority of the film has him in the lung or under the covers, we mainly just see his face and hear his voice and the way Hawkes builds this character and his emotions is just something truly incredible to watch. It also helps that Hunt is so great in her role as she's pretty much playing the guy's teacher, lover and friend. The compassion she brings to the role is certainly something special and the chemistry between the two hits on all the right marks. Macy is also excellent as the priest bringing in some needed humor. Moon Bloodgood, Adam Arkin and Annika Marks are also great in their supporting parts. THE SESSIONS boils down to being a story about something with physical limitations and I'd say it's one of the better films to come from this sub-genre. The movie is funny but it's also incredibly touching as these two people slowly come together over a group of sessions. This is certainly a movie for adults as there's no trickery in the story but instead it just plays out in a mature fashion.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Greetings again from the darkness. In 1997, director Jessica Yu won an
Academy Award for her documentary short entitled "Breathing Lessons:
The Life and Work of Mark O'Brien". Mr. O'Brien was a poet and
journalist who attended Cal Berkeley. His story reaches the level of
remarkability once you understand that he suffered the harsh effects of
polio, was almost entirely paralyzed, and was confined to an iron lung
for all but 3-4 hours per day. Director Ben Lewin (a Polio survivor)
has taken a specific part of O'Brien's story and turned it into a very
entertaining and intimate film that explores the challenges faced by
the disabled in leading a full and sexual life.
In 1990, O'Brien had an article published: "On Seeking a Sex Surrogate". It detailed his desire to overcome the obstacles and experience a sexual relationship. He did so by working with Cheryl Cohen Greene, a Berkeley based sex surrogate ... also a wife and mother of two. This is the very touching story of how Cheryl (played here by Helen Hunt) worked with O'Brien (played by John Hawkes) to overcome his fear and anxiety. These sessions occurred after O'Brien "cleared" his plan with his Catholic priest (William H Macy).
This story is as frank and honest as you might expect, and it avoids sinking into Hollywood sentimentality for the sake of the story. The truth is plenty powerful. O'Brien's caregivers are played progressively by Rusty Schwimmer, Annika Marla and Moon Bloodgood. Cheryl's husband is played by Alan Arkin and Robin Weigert plays Susan, the woman with whom O'Brien had a loving relationship with until his death in 1999.
There are some similarities to the wonderful film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, but this story and these characters are much more accessible to the viewer. These are people with whom we care about and connect. It's a vivid reminder that living a full life regardless of one's constraints should always be the goal. Incidentally, Cheryl still works as a surrogate these days ... at age 68.
This is an absolutely superb film! If you see a trailer it won't show how brilliant this film is, the only way you can actually experience how good it is is by actually seeing it. The only way that it can be advertised to actually make you want to see it is word of mouth. I see loads of films each year and I can tell you as a true critic, not biased by any specific genre, this film is brilliant. It's original, funny, shows the true awkwardness of the situation and work with it. It's fun, no matter how serious the condition or serious the illness is. The guy is fun. The best line, "Are you religious?" "Yes, I need someone to hate and blame for my problems". It's so true!
The Sessions directed by Ben Lewin is based on the life of Mark O'Brien, a polio stricken man in an iron lung who was a journalist and a poet( played by John Hawkes: movie Winter's bone)originally from Boston who moved to Berkeley,CA. Mark was grateful that his parents did not send him to a nursing home but raised him at home so he could live long. At age of 38 ( 1988), Mark decided to lose his virginity and explore and enjoy sex. He was always supine and always either in an iron lung at home or on a gurney when outside. He finally decides to seek the help of a paid sex surrogate who is definitely different from a hooker. Cheryl(played by Helen Hunt)is a sex surrogate. Cheryl is intelligent, educated,married and has a nice body. Cheryl and Mark decide to go through six sessions of sex and self awareness. Cheryl makes Mark aware of his and her body. John Hawkes acted brilliantly . His facial expressions and glittering eyes are very enticing and evoke respect and sympathy. I particularly liked the way Mark describes his first session of intimacy: cleansed and victorious. Helen Hunt as Cheryl is excellent. All the nude scenes are sophisticated and stylishly done. William Macy as Father Brendan is excellent. Screenplay is excellent and conversations between Father Brendan and Mark are interesting. Oscar worthy for Direction,screenplay, best actor, best actress, best supporting actor roles.
Not a single false note struck by any of the cast in this gem.
John Hawkes, an actor's actor, finds a new level, as does Helen Hunt which is saying something. Every time I see William H Macy I think he is (even) better than the time before, and this is no exception.
This beautifully constructed and rendered movie was written and directed by a guy that I have never heard of, and, I'm told, made for less than a million bucks.
My guess is that we will hear a lot of him in the future.
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