THE SESSIONS—-“I believe in a God with a sense of humor. I would find it absolutely intolerable not to be to able blame someone for all this. “ One of many good lines in this great 2012 biographical comedy-drama, written & directed by Ben Lewin, taken from an article by Mark O’Brien, played here by the chameleon John Hawkes. O’Brien, a poet in his late 30s and paralyzed neck-down by polio, dependent on an iron lung, determines that before he leaves his life’s cruel prison he’ll at least lose his virginity.
Armed with a kindly nature and droll sense of irony-informed humor, he gets an okay from his (pretty hip) priest (William H. Macy) and hires professional sex-surrogate Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Helen Hunt) to be his guide in this laid-or-bust endeavor, which has emotional risks attached beyond the purely technical issues of practical deed-doing. Lucky for O’Brien, deed becomes plural.
Helen Hunt, seen little on screen in the preceding decade, swoops in like a champ, looking a fit and felicitous 48, in a daringly frank, open and winning (and frequently totally nude) performance that won her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. She and Hawkes work beautifully together*, and they’re blessed with having a screenplay and direction that lets obvious dilemma speak for itself without laying in extra pathos padding. The easily-mocked nag “you’ll laugh, you’ll cry” always risks being trotted out of its stall with ‘uplifting’ stories such as the O’Brien/Greene case, but this picture fits with the rich company of The Diving Bell And The Butterfly.*
Done a sliver budget of $1,000,000, it grossed $9,138,000. 95 minutes, with Moon Bloodgood (just fine, plain-Jane’d from her normal jaw-dropping splendor), Annika Marks, Adam Arkin, Rhea Perlman, W.Earl Browne, Robin Weigert, Ming Lo and Rusty Schwimmer.
*Hunt lost to Anne Hathaway’s commendable work in Les Miserables, but I’d favor a different kind of earth-mother, competitor Jackie Weaver’s criminal matriarch in Animal Kingdom (though I wouldn’t want her ‘Smurf Cody’ as sex surrogate). Hawkes took commitment to extremes: by trying to simulate O’Brien’spinal curvature, he laid on a soccer-ball sized piece of foam, and it ended up damaging his own spine. Daniel Day-Lewis was fittingly elected for Lincoln, but I’d take Hawkes’ grace-filled enactment of hope, humor and humanity over nominee Joaquin Phoenix and his indulgent sand-humping for The Master in a Price-Waterhouse minute.
**Sterling good company in direst of straits: My Left Foot, Passion Fish, Whose Life Is It Anyway?, The Waterdance (also with Hunt in a similar role), Born On The Fourth Of July and the 1950 Marlon Brando forerunner The Men.