This may be hard to believe (especially with the recent Guy Fieri/New York Times debacle), but critics can have a heart. We may pretend to have cold, black obsidian hearts protected by an impenetrable outer shell of snarky comments and grumpy nitpicks, but really, we love a satisfying cry or emotional moment as much as the next person. It just needs to be done right.
Case in point: "The Sessions," a sweet, honest, sincere and funny indie sensation that toggles just the right emotional switches to hit the waterworks jackpot. Considering Hollywood's typical brand of cloying tearjerkers, it's a delightful surprise to find a movie that can get the tears flowing without guilt.
Oscar-nominee John Hawkes stars as real-life journalist and poet Mark O'Brien. Stricken with polio as a child, Mark is unable to move any part of his body other than his head and is forced to spend most of his life inside a life-saving, but also constricting, iron lung. Despite his affliction, however, Mark decides that at the age of 38, he wants to lose his virginity.
With the blessing of a friendly local priest and confidant (William H. Macy), Mark hires Cheryl, a sex surrogate played by Helen Hunt, to help him learn how to control and find comfort in the frail body that has served as his prison for so long.
As the sessions continue and their intimacy increases, their relationship becomes more emotionally complicated. Mark starts to view Cheryl as a pillar of support – both physically and mentally – and Cheryl worries about what the end of their relationship could do to his feelings of guilt and self-loathing.
Hawkes has gained a ton of Oscar buzz for his turn as O'Brien. It's the kind of transformative, showy role that the Academy loves this time of year. The incredible part about Hawkes' performance, however, is that it doesn't feel like he's putting on a show for awards attention. He effortlessly embodies the character physically – the crooked posture, the timid weak voice – and mentally.
It's a great performance that isn't aware of how it's impressing the audience; it's just impressive, even more so since Hawkes only has his face and head to captivate viewers.
Some pretty spot-on supporting actors surround the "Winter's Bone" alum as well. Hunt, who's mostly disappeared from movies since 2000 ("Soul Surfer" and "Bobby" are her only major releases in the past five years), makes a welcome and brave return to the screen. Her Boston accent is a little sketchy, but her connection with Hawkes' character – a mixture of admiration, attraction and worried wariness – is undeniable.
Macy steals a number of scenes as well as Mark's spiritual advisor. He's equally adept with the comedic part of his role, in addition to the more serious moments when he deliberates over what God would think of Mark – a devoted man of religion – and his desire to do the deed. As "The Sessions" goes on, he has little to do besides provide comedic reactions to Mark's escalatingly erotic encounters, but Macy still charms.
Writer/director Ben Lewin not only guides the actors well but also the film's complicated emotions. It is a comedy, but at the same time, it's a remarkably honest and insightful story. Lewin – a polio survivor himself – really gets inside the mind of O'Brien, tapping into the man's delicate insecurities and sensibilities (though he's strongly religious, he believes God to have a "wicked sense of humor").
Sometimes, in fact, you almost wish they delved into them more. Cheryl's discovery of Mark's inner fears about his body and guilt about what his condition has done to those he's loved feel rather quickly integrated into the screenplay. However, the fact that Lewin taps into these insights – and gets Hawkes to portray them with such nuance – is still a modest marvel.
Much like the Milwaukee Film Festival's "Starbuck," it takes a storyline seemingly headed for crass disaster and turns it into something surprisingly touching. Yes, there are certainly laughs to be had, but the relationship and struggle at the core of "The Sessions" is seriously human. The movie treats it earnestly and with respect, and therefore the audience does as well.
Plus, Lewin also thankfully portrays the disabled not as figures of pity or charity cases, but as regular people just as capable of love and sex as anyone else. Too many times, Hollywood tries to turn the handicapped into saintly messiah figures instead of giving them the respect of being fully developed characters, flaws and complications included. "The Sessions" does and is all the richer and more satisfying as a result.
Mark O'Brien may not have had the ability to move, but his story certainly does – maybe even to tears. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
No Talkbacks for this article.
Post your comment/review now
Disclaimer: Please note that Facebook comments are posted through Facebook and cannot be approved, edited or declined by OnMilwaukee.com. The opinions expressed in Facebook comments do not necessarily reflect those of OnMilwaukee.com or its staff.
Recent Articles & Blogs by Matt Mueller
Published July 1, 2015
I'll admit it; before Tuesday night's Marcus Amphitheater show started up, one of those people was me. I wondered why a band, whose last seemingly notable moments came at the service of three-fourths of Michael Bay's "Transformers" franchise, was a Big Gig Amp headliner. Well, one large serving of crow, please, cooked medium rare.
Published June 30, 2015
Most bands desperately hope that their music videos will go viral. For pop rockers OK Go, at this point, it's almost expected. With a Summerfest headliner set scheduled for the Uline Warehouse on Thursday, July 2, I chatted with bassist/vocalist Tim Nordwind about the band's stories behind some of their viral sensations.
Published June 30, 2015
After traveling the globe in support of its star-making self-titled debut album, PHOX's tour is bringing the band right back to where its journey started in the first place: Wisconsin. Before it heads home to Baraboo, the band is dropping by its "home away from home" of Milwaukee to play Summerfest, opening for Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeros on Thursday, July 2. Before then, we talked to Matt Holmen about his own fond Big Gig memories.
Published June 29, 2015
According to, well, herself, DJ Paris Hilton is one of the top paid DJs currently working. Unfortunately, much like the "Transformers" movies, her Summerfest set was one of those situations where the amount of the money involved was inversely proportionate to the amount of skill on display. Also like the "Transformers" films, it was loud, clunky, sporadically dull despite all of the noise, unnecessarily lengthy and, by the end, left me in a little bit of pain.
Published June 28, 2015
If you've seen Disney/Pixar's latest animated hit "Inside Out," there's a good chance a certain song has been rattling around in your mind ever since. No, not that TripleDent gum jingle, but the chorus to "Lava," the brief and beautifully rendered short about a volcanic island looking for love. While the short takes plenty of inspiration from Hawaii, as it turns out, Murphy's journey to get there made a stop right here in Milwaukee.
Published June 28, 2015
As clearly proved Saturday night at the U.S. Cellular Connection Stage, "Shut Up And Dance" pop rockers Walk The Moon can now draw a packed house. The only question: Would they put on a show worthy of the face painted mob they gathered? Most certainly.
Published June 27, 2015
For a guy whose latest album was titled "Can't Even Do Wrong Right," a lot has gone pretty right for legendary blues rocker Elvin Bishop over the past 365 days - an award-winning new album, a place on the soundtrack of one of Hollywood's biggest hits, a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and now a headliner gig at Summerfest on Tuesday, June 30.
Published June 27, 2015
The old-school folk group Punch Brothers tried something different and set their goals somewhere new Friday night at the BMO Harris Pavilion. Lead singer and maniacal mandolinist Chris Thile said their mission was not to raise the roof, but "tap the roof," delicately nudging the ceiling with his pointer fingers. Well, congratulations Punch Brothers; you tapped the roof Friday night at Summerfest. And then some.
Published June 26, 2015
Judging by X Ambassadors brief seven-song Summerfest set at a well packed U.S. Cellular Connection Stage early Thursday evening, there's still some work to be done before the band officially earns the title of Top 40 rock heir apparent. However, the potential is most certainly there, and by the end of the rockers' setlist, it was on full display.
Published June 25, 2015
Before the indie pop duo's upcoming Summerfest gig at the Miller Lite Oasis on Sunday, June 28, OnMilwaukee.com caught up with Mates of State's Jason Hammel to chat about the band's decision to stop making LPs, his sad memory of Milwaukee and "The Rumperbutts." Yes, "The Rumperbutts."