When the Academy Award nominations come in, 2012 Sundance-Festival-favorite “Sessions” will be mentioned. For sure. But when the awards go out, “Sessions” will be shut out. This is a drama destined to become a bit of movie trivia and “Did you ever see?” probing among cinemasts, loved by a few, unknown to most.
That’s a shame. This is a smart, amazingly uplifting, funny, poignant, and, yes, heartbreaking (very) adult tale of a man (John Hawkes, from “Winter’s Bone”) attempting to get laid despite his own body being left unable to move from the neck down after being stricken by polio as a child.
That’s almost crude to say, but that’s exactly the trek we follow. Based on a true story, “Sessions” focuses Berkley, Calif., resident Mark O’Brien’s desire and need to lose his virginity before he dies, and he knows he won’t live terribly long. His “sell by” date runs quick, he says.
Mark spends his nights in an iron lung, a massive tube that alleviates breathing problems, and his every waking moment is accompanied by an oxygen tank for much the same purpose. He can move nothing but his head. The rest of his body, dormant. He can, however, get an erection, and, like any living being, longs for sex, intimacy, physical contact.
Here’s the beauty of this flick, small in the best of ways: Relative newcomer writer/director Ben Lewin -– himself partially crippled by polio -– refuses to go sentimental or booming give-us-a-big-cry movie soft accompanied by a swelling orchestral score a la Hollywood. Instead, he beautifully lays out the film with clear-eyed, sobering journalistic precision.
O’Brien himself was a poet and journalist. The mood, the smallness, fits. Before the opening credits are through, Mark has finished university (in footage of the real O’Brien) and now works as a freelance writer, typing and dialing the phone with a stick inserted in his mouth.
When he makes a house visit for an interview, as he does in any outside trip, a medical assistant pushes O’Brien along as he lays flat prone in a hospital bed. His latest paid gig: Write about sexuality and the disabled. That assignment gets his own wheels (and libido, and sexual fantasies) spinning. He’s 38, never had sex, and hitting the bars, clubs, and other singles hot spots, is out of the question.
But a sex surrogate is within the bounds, and O’Brien seeks out Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt, of “As Good As it Gets,” and gone too long from cinema screens), a specialist dedicated to physically helping people cope with sexual hang-ups. (If you’re thinking “prostitute,” don’t, and the notion is handled quickly here, in fine form.)
As O’Brien explore his sexuality, he also wrestles with his faith and what God thinks of his struggle, if He would forgive O’Brien’s curiosity. O’Brien believes in God, and holds no anger toward Him, and his continuing faith journey is handled with sober-minded serious, no mockery. “I’m not getting married anytime soon,” O’Brien says, I paraphrase, to his priest, played by William H. Macy. Their talks are fascinating, to anyone of faith, or not of faith.
O’Brien and Greene’s first sexual encounters are tinged with all the possible awkwardness of anyone’s first time, cranked a thousand fold as he can’t move. O’Brien, with a lifelong lack of intimacy and love and relationships, instantly falls in love with Greene, and in his mind sees her as his wife, love of his life. Except she is married, with a teenage son. (That notion caused a stir at the second screening of this I saw.)
I’ll stop with the film synopsis. This is a true story, if you know the outcome, I’ll just bore you. If you don’t know the story, I’ll make you mad.
This is an adult film, no holds barred, with graphic nudity and sexual content, but it’s not porn of any kind. The sex, as with O’Brien’s life and faith struggle, is dealt with clear-eyed and exact, no frills, no tricks. More so, it’s sex as human contact, an absolute need for intimacy and love.
And that’s the real treat of this film, this is a story of one man, under unique experiences few of us can ever imagine, but he’s a man like us nonetheless. (That he’s more at peace than most men is not an exaggeration.)
Director Lewin doesn’t need to push his story down our throat with a bag of sugar, he lets his actors -– both deserving of Oscars, especially Hawkes -– act, and he tells his story with an exactitude that 95 percent of Hollywood could not possibly imagine: There’s a moment when O’Brien faces a life crisis, and Hawkes’s character doesn’t cry a tear, but shrugs, “Oh, well.”
The moment almost seems comedic. But it’s not. It’s a simple as this: O’Brien – as played by Hawkes – knows his time is limited, and he is making the best of it, hungry for every moment and every experience that others, myself included, take for granted.
For a film that shrugs off miracles, “Sessions” is its own kind of magic. Don’t let this small gem of film pass by unwatched. See it. A
– Steven Mackay, Lyric volunteer