THE SESSIONS (94 min) (M)
Directed by Ben Lewin. Starring John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H Macy.
Sure to be generating a lot of noise as Oscar season approaches, The Sessions is an independent American drama starring John Hawkes as real-life polio victim Mark O'Brien, and Helen Hunt as the "sex surrogate" he employed - at the age of 38 - to relieve him of his virginity.
The first time I was aware of John Hawkes, he was tearing up the screen in Winter's Bone. (Another indie that went all the way to Oscar nominations, as it happens.) Hawkes was mesmerising in that film, and he is equally powerful here. O'Brien was immobile from the neck down. His nervous system still functioned, but his muscles were near useless. Hawkes plays him as a man of vast dark humour, thoughtful, philosophical, devilishly funny, but with some very understandable blind spots regarding his interactions with other people.
O'Brien's relationships with his various caregivers expose different facets of his personality, tender and generous with some, petulant and short-tempered with others. O'Brien's closest friend however, is his priest, played beautifully by William H Macy, with whom he shares a close and hilariously frank series of confessions.
It is the priest who tells O'Brien that his desire to not die a virgin is not only understandable, but "I think the good lord will give you a free pass on this one". Which was, I would have thought, an uncharacteristically magnanimous position on the part of the lord, especially as O'Brien also says he is only a Catholic because he "wants someone to blame". Cheryl Cohen Greene was the woman chosen to become O'Brien's first lover (and the word is appropriate). She is a professional who specialises in patients with disabilities. As played by Hunt, she is warm, terrifically open-minded, frank, and utterly compassionate. The friendship and relationship between these two is the very guts of The Sessions, and it works a charm. I wasn't entirely convinced by the scenes of Cohen Greene's home life, but the rest of this film has a dignity, a wit, and a deeply appealing honesty about it that will completely win you over. It might not have the artistry of The Diving Bell and The Butterfly, but there is an unvarnished simplicity about the story-telling here that is perhaps even more moving.
And look out for the documentary Scarlet Road, playing now, which is an Australian film on a Sydney sex worker who is the local equivalent of Helen Hunt's character here. It's a great wee film.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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