I’m starting the Oscar campaign now, maybe a bit prematurely. John Hawkes deserves, at the very least, a nomination for his work in The Sessions. To watch him, as polio victim Mar O’Brien, struggle beneath the weight of his flimsy body, and then under the weight of the behemoth iron lung, is both uncomfortable and mesmerizing. His head turns to one side most of the time, and halfway through the movie, I realized mine was doing the same thing. Maybe it was to compensate, maybe it was out of sympathy. Who knows. But his performance in The Sessions is one worth checking out.
The movie itself is very sweet. Not mind-blowing, but sweet. And it certainly conjures up interesting topics to think about. The true story of a very Catholic man who hires a sex surrogate to help him lose his virginity is one with all sorts of loopholes, mostly navigated by the man’s lenient priest (William H. Macy!), but the priest does a very delicate job of letting O’Brien gradually make more and more decisions himself, even if it seems like he’s doing it at the priest’s advisement. O’Brien is a curious, charming, incredibly horny man, but it’s his true innocence that really shines through here. Hawkes captures something very childlike in him; I can only imagine that the real O’Brien had a similar twinkle in his eye.
O’Brien was lucky to interact with and/or fall for four beautiful women: one of his first caretakers and first love Amanda (Annika Marks), another caretaker and take-no-shit friend Vera (Moon Bloodgood), his last love Susan (Robin Weigert), and finally the surrogate, Cheryl (Helen Hunt). I’ve always been completely smitten with Helen Hunt, mostly because I’d love to look the way she does when I’m 49. (She’s 49, holy shit!) But I’ve also thought she’s always had this unmistakeable, undefinable grace about her, which no other actress quite has. She’s quiet, charming but not effusive, and confident but completely unaware of it. With the exception of her sort of inconsistent accent–a hearty attempt at Bostonian, leagues above Julianne Moore’s feeble attempt–she’s flawless in this movie, too. (I mean, I even liked her in What Women Want.) She brings out a comfort in O’Brien that, I imagine, he never had before and never had after.
The real hero of this story isn’t Cheryl, though, or even O’Brien. It’s romance, or rather, the wit that we often forget is a large part of romance. The relationship that these two share is superficially business, and it never really turns into more than that, but there is romance there, somewhere. It’s undefined and real, and it exists within the one thing that the two can share besides intimacy: making each other smile. Most of the time it’s with wit, some of the time it’s with silence. The script isn’t particularly hilarious, but the wit is there, and thus the charm, and thus all those thinking points I was talking about earlier. It’s pretty cool, actually, how full circle the whole thing comes–Mark O’Brien spent more time in his own head in his short life than most of us ever will, but he made sure to make his story worth thinking about after he passed away.
Oh, and because O’Brien was a Cal grad too, go Bears!