The Sessions: Iron Lung Love

Noted character actor John Hawkes gives a fine performance in this strangely light-hearted story about a disabled man’s quest for sexual fulfillment.

When I heard the Oscar buzz around John Hawkes’ lead performance in The Sessions, I was not entirely surprised. Though not yet a household name, Hawkes (Deadwood, Eastbound and Down) received a Best Supporting Actor nomination last year for Winter’s Bone, and with his uncanny ability to inhabit characters of great complexity and range, he could easily hold his own in a battle with the likes of Daniel Day Lewis (his co-star in Lincoln) or Joaquin Phoenix. But The Sessions is an odd film, and despite the subtle brilliance of Hawkes’ performance, it somehow seems an unlikely candidate for Oscar consideration.

Based on the true story of Berkeley poet and journalist Mark O’Brien, who contracted polio as a child and spent the majority of his life in an iron lung, The Sessions manages to be quite light-hearted in tone; a feel-good film about a determinedly optimistic but lonely man who experiences true love, and better yet, the physical pleasures it manifests, after a series of training “sessions” with a sexual surrogate played (primarily in the nude) by Helen Hunt.

The film focuses on the last decade of O’Brien’s life, and he comes across to us as a humble man with great wit, warmth and charm — qualities that Hawkes embodies with ease. O’Brien was also a deeply religious man, and in the film he finds solace and strength in this, as well as in his close relationship with an equally warm and charming hippie priest, played by William H. Macy. But no matter how many friendships O’Brien cultivates, or how many times he feels love, what he yearns for is to experience sexual pleasure; or to put it as bluntly as the film does, the sensation of full penetration.

Though the The New Yorker‘s David Denby described the film as resolutely unfunny, the test audience surrounding me in the preview screening chuckled gently throughout. But this is Helen Hunt-approved humour; think a less acerbic As Good As it Gets (the 1997 Hunt/Jack Nicholson opposites-attract rom-com) without clothes. And so despite its candid look at sex and sexuality, it manages to be almost grandma-friendly.

And it is this that makes the film kind of strange. In real life, O’Brien advocated for the right to live his life fully and independently despite his physical limitations, and succeeded. But the film, though it does not entirely undermine the serious nature of the subject matter, treats it so lightly that in the end, there is very little that resonates when the screen has gone black. And when I realized that there was an Academy Award-winning doc made about O’Brien in 1997 called Breathing Lessons, I found myself questioning the need for this fictionalized account.

But Hawkes is incredibly likeable in the role, and the power of his restrained but nonetheless physical performance is an achievement on par with his Master Thespian contemporaries. Hunt is also quite delightful if you like what she brings to the table, as are all of the supporting actors, many of whom film and tv-literate viewers will recognize from Hawkes’ previous work. For me, identifying them and watching them interact with Hawkes in this new context was a large part of what made the film fun. ■


The Sessions opens Nov. 2


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