You can get a double dose of John Hawkes this week. The 53-year-old character actor was in Fort Worth last weekend to be feted by the Lone Star International Film Festival. Now he has both a small role in Lincoln (see above review) and the lead role in The Sessions, an acclaimed low-budget drama that expands to a few Tarrant County theaters on Friday. In contrast with the menacing backwoods types he played in Winter’s Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene, which are probably his best-known parts, the character he portrays in The Sessions is a gentle intellectual who’s confined to his bed. The wiry Hawkes shows off his range as an actor by giving a distinguished performance here. It’s too bad the movie is so wan.
The story is based on the writings of Mark O’Brien, a journalist and poet who was living in Berkeley in 1988. Then 36 years old, he had never had sex because a childhood bout with polio had left him dependent on an iron lung, unable to get up from his gurney or breathe on his own for more than a few hours. Researching an article about the sex practices of disabled people is what led O’Brien to seek the services of a sexual surrogate to help him lose his virginity at long last.
The film is written and directed by Ben Lewin, who has not directed a film since 1994. He brings little wit, imagination, or visual flair to this story. Mark signs up for six sessions with a therapist named Cheryl (Helen Hunt) and alas turns out to be a bit of a cliché, a romantic poet who keeps falling in idealized platonic love with women. Mark’s frailty has led to disgust with his physique, and late in the film Cheryl dispels that by holding up a mirror to his naked body and encouraging him to see it as beautiful. I wish we had actually seen him naked in this scene, especially given that Hunt is completely nude so often here. The scenes between these actors are skillfully played, yet Lewin seems unsure exactly what to make of their relationship, as the therapist becomes emotionally attached to this man.
The movie is stronger on Mark’s psychological hang-ups, which go beyond his body-image issues. His Catholic upbringing has left him with a load of guilt, and the person of most help isn’t Cheryl but rather a shaggy-haired priest (William H. Macy) who takes Mark’s sex-laden confessions at the altar within hearing of other parishioners because Mark’s gurney won’t fit inside the confessional. This aspect of Mark is where Hawkes shines, as a man whose discomfort with sex leads him to crack self-defensive jokes while Cheryl is taking off his clothes. You may well develop a crick in your neck watching this movie, because Mark is framed so often lying on his side, and you want to see Hawkes’ face as Mark ventures into what is for him uncharted territory. When it comes to the physical and psychological effects of disability, The Sessions is nowhere close to the likes of Julian Schnabel’s wondrous The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Yet whatever staying power it has it owes to John Hawkes.
Starring John Hawkes and Helen Hunt. Written and directed by Ben Lewin. Rated R.