Overview: A polio survivor with an iron lung decides to lose his virginity through a sex surrogate. Fox Searchlight; 2012; Rated R; 95 Minutes.
Astonishment: Mark O’Brien’s story shouldn’t work; in even moderately capable hands, it would skip Blu-ray release and move straight to Sunday afternoons on the Lifetime Movie Network. Yet, something saves it from its own loaded plot, from what should be an inevitable exercise in disingenuous emotional obviousness, and from Helen Hunt’s dreadful Boston accent mispronouncing her genitalia as “vaginer.” It’s hard to recall the last time a movie established such an unwavering balance between sentimentality and sincerity, an incident of such elegant film poetry delivered with narrative straight-shooting.
John Hawkes: If Mark O’Brien isn’t presented as a pitiable individual, this story collapses under its own weighted insistence. If Mark O’Brien isn’t presented as admirable, strong, and spirited, this film’s thematic expression becomes deflated peachiness. John Hawkes delivers on both requirements. Hawkes’ performance is astounding, hilarious, affirming. The credit goes beyond defeating the physical limitations (O’Brien exists within an iron lung with no motor control from the neck down). Our hearts are broken by his expressions, his delivery of patient wisdom inspires. In the end, we feel we owe something to Hawkes for this gift of a performance. I consider it a mistake that the great Daniel Day Lewis won his third Oscar when this performance was available for voting.
Support Frames: The most obvious observation of framing comes in O’Brien’s supporting cast: Helen Hunt, William H. Macy, Moon Bloodgood, and Annika Marks surround Mark with measured doses of authentic admiration, the sort of sincerity that a script like this demands (perhaps because the real-life individual deserves it). Dream-like tones filter into flashback scenes, showing Mark as a child before his affliction, framing his history in humanizing directness. And, the most subtle yet powerful framing technique: Mark’s on-screen position. Though always lying down, Mark is shown most often, particularly in scenes of importance, vertically positioned rather than horizontally, a marker of strength. It all works to license his humanity, his wisdom. So much so, that when sex surrogate Cheryl, the sensuality expert, becomes emotionally attached to Mark, the recent virgin teaches her about the function of true love and there is no room to question who is right in the teaching.
Overall– Love, Over all: In his life, Mark O’Brien shared love with three women. The Sessions is an investigation and measurement of the real substance of that love, the value of its presence. Without spitting condemnations at the institution of Western Romance and its stifling notions of emotional fidelity, screenwriter and director Ben Lewin, using O’Brien’s actual poetry as voiceover, permits each of these romances to hold their significance. It is a truth uncommon in American film: All love matters. Whether it’s in your mind or in your hands, the past or the future, during your life or after, brief or eternal, it matters. Mark O’Brien makes sure we remember that.