Intense curiosity, nervousness, embarrassment, loneliness, extreme vulnerability, feelings of amour and a type of spiritual devotion — asking an actor to effectively evoke all of that in a single performance is a tall order. The task seems to become nigh on impossible to achieve without the use of body language.
Yet that’s precisely what John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone), as a California poet and journalist who spends his days confined to an iron lung, accomplishes in The Sessions, Ben Lewin’s film based on a true story. Hawkes, as 38-year-old Mark O’Brien, afflicted with a condition restricting his voluntary body movement to his face and neck, uses only his expressive eyes, mouth and nasal voice to fully inhabit a man whose high intelligence is matched by his bravery and a determination to experience the pleasures of being fully human.
O’Brien, remarkably, used a motorized gurney to attend classes and graduate from the University of California, Berkeley, remaining in the community to focus on his work as a writer; he painstakingly uses his mouth and a pencil to work on the magazine article that would go on to inspire the film. Having fallen in love with a caretaker who doesn’t return his affections, he is assigned an article concerning sex and the disabled, and opts to go on a carnal voyage of his own. Facing a future that may be cut short, he wants to explore the possibility of a sexual relationship.
Gaining the sort-of blessing from a supportive, long-haired priest (William H. Macy), O’Brien connects with a sex surrogate, Cheryl, played by Helen Hunt in another of the film’s remarkable performances. Their time together, intentionally limited to six sessions, results in a relationship marked by humor, tenderness, a certain sexiness and emotional complexity. The same might be said about Lewin’s humane, funny gem of a drama.