The Sessions Review

The Sessions

Since breaking out of the character actor mould, John Hawkes has made somewhat of a habit out of turning in fantastic, career-defining performances, only to be overshadowed by one of his female co-stars. Two years ago he bagged an Oscar nomination for his haunting turn as the meth-addicted Teardrop in Winter’s Bone, but it was fellow Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence who grabbed the headlines for her excellent performance. A little over a year later and Hawkes excelled yet again as the intimidating and seductive cult leader Patrick in Martha Marcy May Marlene – but the young, female newcomer stealing the spotlight away from him on that occasion was Elizabeth Olsen. Flash-forward to this year’s Academy Award nominations and Hawkes is overlooked by The Academy for his performance in The Sessions, only for his co-star Helen Hunt to show up in the Supporting Actress category and it looks like his big moment has been taken away once again. The key difference this time though is that no cinema-goer (save for maybe Mr Skin) will leave The Sessions talking about Helen Hunt. It’s all very deservedly going to be about John Hawkes.

That’s not to take anything away from Hunt; she’s very good. It’s just that Hawkes is great. Nay, revelatory. He plays the real-life character of Mark O’Brien who was paralyzed and required the use of an iron lung to survive after contracting polio as a child. When we meet him in The Sessions he’s already achieved the inspirational feat of becoming a successful poet and journalist. He’s come to terms with his disability and has a positive outlook on life – you could set the inspirational disease-of-the-week movie before this one even gets going. What he hasn’t got though, and has never had, is a physical relationship. After consulting with a sex therapist and his compassionately, open-minded priest (endearingly portrayed by a wild-haired William H. Macy) Mark reaches the decision to visit a sex surrogate (Hunt’s Cheryl) who will help him lose his virginity during their six titular sessions together.

There’s a sincerity and sensitivity to the story that then unfolds, but it’s also executed in an incredibly accessible, crowd-pleasing fashion. That could be interpreted as a nice way of saying that it’s every bit as formulaic as one of those disease-of-the-week TV movies, and maybe it could have been just that were it not for the nuanced performances and the streak of wry humour running through Ben Lewin’s film. The sex scenes themselves verge on becoming cloying – too sensitive, too full of serious emotions, too keen to pack a heartfelt emotional punch. They just about avoid becoming maudlin through the wise decision to depict the sessions mostly through flashback as Mark recounts the experiences in an amusingly matter-of-fact fashion to Macy’s priest. That device definitely helps to diminish those detrimental aspects, but the real key to those scenes is probably Hunt’s excellent (and brave – which is contractually obligated shorthand for saying she takes her clothes off a lot) turn as Cheryl. Her determination to keep up a façade of detachment is a vital ingredient in those difficult scenes, and that also allows us to view Mark – at least superficially -through the eyes of someone who hasn’t immediately been swept up by his obvious wit and charm.

It could jar that every character in the film seems to experience a similar sweeping sensation upon meeting Mark were it not for the fact that most audience members will also react in the same way as the film’s opening scenes play out. It’s an absorbing performance from Hawkes (of course aided by some of the real Mark O’Brien’s prose) who delivers his dialogue entirely from the horizontal with a bewitching, high-pitched tone that never feels forced. Who knows why The Academy weren’t on board with the performance, but given that they also overlooked Marion Cotillard’s performance in Rust and Bone maybe this just wasn’t the year for able-bodied actors portraying disabled characters? They didn’t even go “full retard,” for goodness sake.  Don’t let that omission fool you into thinking that his isn’t one of the finest performances of the year though. Hawkes is making a convincing case that he’s one of the best actors in the business, and while Deadwood fans have probably been banging that particular drum for a number of years, it’s good that the rest of us are now being given the opportunity to catch up. 


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2 Comments on “The Sessions Review”

  1. luke_richardson January 21, 2013 at 23:29 #

    Great review, Joe. I too am surprised by the snubbing of Hawkes. What’s great to see is that it so far hasn’t slowed him down, going from strength to strength and quite quickly becoming the Daniel Day Lewis in the wings.

    If you can get your hands on it, I’d recommend seeing Arcadia. Andie drama that sees Hawkes play a loving, but reticent father. Caught it at Berlinale last year and it’s pretty sweet.


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