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 Sept. 18, 2014
Character actor David Eigenberg is likely best known for spending multiple seasons and two movies romancing Cynthia Nixon's Miranda Hobbes on the iconic HBO TV show "Sex and the City." Eigenberg's latest television project nowadays, however, is far from high fashion and high living in New York City. Instead of a fiery redhead, Eigenberg now co-stars with actual flames on NBC's "Chicago Fire."
Published Sept. 17, 2014
In 2010, Mark Clements arrived in Milwaukee and, in his first act as artistic director, brought something to the Milwaukee Rep's main stage that oddly it had never seen in its impressive history: a musical. Several years later, Clements has made it a bit of a tradition to feature a musical in the Rep's main house schedule. 2014 is no different and the Powerhouse opens up with "The Color Purple."
Published Sept. 15, 2014
The title of The War on Drugs' latest album is "Lost in the Dream," fitting for a record - and a moment in time - that utterly enveloped front man Adam Granduciel. The band is now taking the final product on the road, including a stop at The Pabst Theater on Sunday, Sept. 21. Before then, Granduciel chatted with OnMilwaukee.com about becoming a real band on the road, the process behind the album and the inner battles that went into it.
Published Sept. 14, 2014
It's hard to imagine there was much clamoring for a sequel to "Dolphin Tale." The first film was a modest early fall success back in 2011, but even then, the story of Winter the dolphin was already fairly thin dramatic material, serving as little more than a nice pleasant aside. Still, somebody thought it was a good idea to head back to the well, and surprisingly - judging from "Dolphin Tale 2" - that person wasn't wrong.
Published Sept. 12, 2014
The Brewers are desperately trying to pull themselves out of a devastating tailspin. Even when they win, they seem to lose - as evidenced by last night's Giancarlo Stanton debacle. Sounds like a good time to get baseball's favorite canine Hank the Dog back in the spotlight!
Published Sept. 10, 2014
The country-tinged rock duo of Phil Leavitt and Joie Calio worked together for years in the band Dada. 7Horse, however, marks a fairly new project for the guys. And there are certainly worse things to put on an early band's resume than being associated with an Oscar-nominated Scorsese film. OnMilwaukee.com got a chance to chat with Leavitt about the band's origins, its Milwaukee connection and getting the rare Scorsese Stamp of Approval.
Published Sept. 9, 2014
For fans of the late '90s, names like the Sugar Ray, "TRL," Surge and Chris Gaines will sound very familiar (OK, maybe not that last one). For local music fans around in the era, another name might sound a little familiar: The Buzzhorn.
Published Sept. 8, 2014
The good news? As with every year, the lineup of movies are the Milwaukee Film Festival is overflowing with terrific options. The bad news? Unfortunately, save for some kind of planetary revolution halt, divine intervention or new time machine development, there are only so many hours in the day. So here are some picks for the film festival selections you should definitely make the time to see.
Published Sept. 5, 2014
After slowly teasing its complete lineup for the past several weeks, the 2014 Milwaukee Film Festival finally revealed the entire cinematic buffet it's assembled for film fans - both hardcore and casual - this morning. And my friends, it looks absolutely delicious.
Published Sept. 4, 2014
Driving down Grange Avenue around the border of Hales Corners and Greendale, the two towns look like typical pleasant suburbs, with assorted shops, strip malls, small businesses and parks mixed in between the cozy subdivisions and homes. And then you come across Trimborn Farm, a seven-and-a-half-acre time machine back to the 1800s, providing a glimpse at the history of the two towns and the city of Milwaukee.