The Sessions tells the true story of Mark O’Brien, a middle aged man crippled and deformed by polio, who wants nothing more than to be loved. Soon after we meet him, the love he longs to feel manifests itself in complete physicality. The man is 38 and has never felt the intimate touch of a woman. To speak clearly: Mark wants to get laid. And soon. Can you blame him?
From the onset of their sessions, Cheryl presents herself as a kind, strong willed woman convincingly dedicated to her job. She believes in what she’s doing – she’s helping Mark achieve something he may never have a chance to experience. The movie rests a lot (if not entirely) on the believability of Mark and Cheryl’s relationship. Lucky for us, Hawkes and Hunt have flawless chemistry together. Their relationship works harmoniously, even when it isn’t working. Through thick and thin, Hawkes and Hunt sell the film as best they can.
Let’s stick with the good (for now). I’ve been a fan of John Hawkes since he shot a hole in Quentin Taratino’s hand in From Dusk Till Dawn. And since earning an Oscar nomination for Winter’s Bone, the man has done no wrong. Mark is a demanding role on a number of levels. There are the obvious physical restraints of the character (which are impressive, but not overly), but moreover, the sardonic humor of Mark is what will surely lead Hawkes to another Oscar nomination. He won’t win, but his seat near the front of the stage will be a fine consolation prize.
In her best role since Cast Away (if not As Good As It Gets) Helen Hunt simply shines as Cheryl. It’s a performance of purpose, fearlessness and feminist strength. I honestly don’t feel that an actor deserves unwavering praise simply for being naked on camera (the same way a performance doesn’t deserve to be hailed as excellent simply because the actor is portraying a handicapped person), but Hunt’s work in The Sessions (much of which is executed without clothes) is courageous for a number of reasons. Again, an Oscar nomination would be fair.
Now the bad and the ugly. While both Hawkes and Hunt are a pleasure to watch here, the movie as a whole did not work for me. Firstly, Cheryl’s story is given several dedicated minutes to flourish outside of her sessions with Mark. All of her scenes add nothing to anything, and take away from the only real essential story at hand. Her home life scenes felt like filler so the film could reach a feature length running time.
Hawkes nails the humor he’s given, but the majority of it (strike that, all of it) is based on punch lines. Cheesy one liners that send the audience into a brief frenzy, before regaining their breath and waiting for the next one. Is that lazy humor? To me, yes. To many, not at all. To put it another way: I saw The Sessions in a large, sold out theater, and it played extremely well to the mostly 50 plus crowd. That said, I bet if you watched it alone at home, without 400 hysterical people around you, damn near every joke would fall flat.
That’s unfair. I should know by now that, as it relates to the world of film criticism, I’m best speaking solely for myself. Maybe you’ll enjoy Mark’s humorous struggle to visit the holiest of holies. Maybe you’ll brush it off as canned humor you’ve seen (and heard) ten times over. Maybe. C-