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Guest Movie Review: The Sessions

The Best Actor awards race is finally beginning to get interesting late in 2012. It’s already been widely predicted that Daniel Day-Lewis will win for his performance as Abraham Lincoln, and to be honest that’s my expectation as well. But the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is a fickle creature. While some annual awards shows (I’m looking at you, Golden Globes) hand out their statuettes like candy at Halloween, the Academy has always had an unofficial strictness as to how often its awards are conferred. The unofficial limit for actors winning an Oscar is typically three, meaning that if you’ve already won two Academy Awards, you really have to blow away your fellow nominees for even a faint hope of a third. Even if you manage to surpass that hurdle and win a third award, you’re pretty much guaranteed never to win again. Look at Meryl Streep, who after nearly thirty years and twelve unfulfilled nominations finally won her third statue for 2011’s Iron Lady, commenting off-handedly that she’ll “never be up here again,” acknowledging that the strict limit exists even for the best and most renowned actors in existence.

And so that is the challenge for Daniel Day-Lewis and – to a lesser extent – fellow potential nominee Denzel Washington. Both have won two Oscars; Day-Lewis for My Left Foot and There Will be Blood, and Washington for Glory and Training Day. Assuming that the Academy would be hesitant to give either actor a third award for their (admittedly excellent) performances, that leaves the contest wide open to upset. One potential benefactor is an actor who has been around a long time but exploded onto the Hollywood scene within the past couple of years, John Hawkes. While Winter’s Bone will obviously be remembered for launching the already-impressive career of Jennifer Lawrence, it was also a grand breakout for Hawkes, whose career to that point had been small roles on film and TV. Suddenly the veteran was being nominated for his first Academy Award for his role as the meth-addicted Teardrop, probably as much a pleasant surprise to Hawkes as it was to the rest of the movie-going public. Though he did not win that award, he did quickly follow it up with excellent turns as a charismatic cult leader in the indie Martha Marcy May Marlene and a Republican lobbyist in Spielberg’s Lincoln. But in Ben Lewin’s The Sessions, he might give his most challenging performance to date, both mentally and physically.

Mark O’Brien was a real-life journalist, poet and an advocate for the disabled who contracted polio at a young age and spent most of his adult life strapped into an iron lung, with the inability to move anything below his neck. In 1990, he wrote an article for the Sun magazine called “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate,” upon which The Sessions is based. Mark decides that losing his virginity is an obstacle he wants to overcome, despite a condition that leaves him unable to perform even rudimentary tasks, sexual or otherwise. When he is introduced to sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt), she attempts to use their sessions to raise his self esteem and see himself as a success despite his ailment, not a failure because of it. Through it all, Mark tries to find a woman who will love him for who he is, though he doesn’t kid himself as to the odds of success.

Usually a man losing his virginity as a movie plot plants it firmly in either teen comedy territory or Steve Carell’s wheelhouse. But the tale of Mark O’Brien is at times sweet, funny and even a bit sexy, and the credit for that belongs squarely with the strange and cutely awkward connection between Hawkes and Hunt. Hawkes continues his record of impressive performances, playing the immobile, faith-guided and self-deprecating O’Brien with a mix of innocence and cynicism that immediately endears himself at first to the audience and then to the growing number of secondary characters that appear alongside him. Hawks’ performance crosses barriers from funny to dramatic and at times a bit depressing, and his ability to put a human face on insurmountable odds is astounding. In what has proven to be a year full of deep, multifaceted performances by leading actors, he exceeds any and all expectations placed upon him and carries the movie atop his immobile shoulders.

That said, it can be easy to forget how much Hunt brings to the table as well. Despite winning some acclaim (as well as an Academy Award) in the late nineties to early 2000’s, the veteran actress dropped off the face of the planet for much of the past decade, making only sporadic appearances until now, presumably while raising a family. However, it’s apparent that the time off has not dulled her skills any; I loved her Jane Goodall-esque approach to the character of Cheryl as a therapist balancing the sexual awareness and freedom with the professionalism she takes to work. Hunt quickly establishes herself as an irreplaceable part of the cast, and hopefully this is a full-fledged return to work and not a brief appearance before returning to obscurity.

While the cast also features talents such as Moon Bloodgood and William H. Macy, and the story is a feel-good mix of smart dialogue and dramatic romance in the tackling of major problems, it does have one major obstacle it cannot overcome in director Ben Lewin. I can’t point to just one wrong thing, but the fact that the aforementioned 95 minutes feels much, much longer is a major factor. It’s obvious the director’s life wasn’t dependant on properly editing the movie, as many scenes go overlong or cut to the next scene haphazardly, with seemingly no motive behind what can only be considered a bad cutting job. Also, his tendency to jump back and forth through time seemingly on a whim gets very annoying very quickly. This is a man who hasn’t directed a full-length film since 1994’s Paperback Romance, and one wishes he had stayed wherever he had been keeping himself. I’ve no doubt that the disability aspect of Mark O’Brien’s story was a major reason he wanted to make this movie; I just wish he had allowed someone more talented to take the director’s chair. I was also not a fan of how the relationship between Mark and Cheryl casually strolled down every clichéd romance trope it could find while heading towards the final act. This was a unique story, and deserved a bit more originality from its telling. Finally, while Macy is the ultimate character actor, his friendly neighborhood priest is high on laughs and low on personality outside of being the ultimate helper minion. Though religion plays a major aspect of the life of Mark and his journey, that the man who is supposed to be his religious mentor is seriously lacking, is some cause for concern.

Despite these problems, Hawkes and Hunt’s combined talents take what could have been a silly, fun little movie and turn it into something more than you might expect. It’s also peaked a bit, audience-wise; the number of theaters carrying The Sessions is already beginning to decrease, and any chance you have of seeing this on the big screen is quickly slipping away. Normally I’d say that you can wait to see this one on DVD in a few months, but with the Oscars coming up soon and perhaps both main actors being eligible for award nominations, this might be your best chance to see the true definition of masterful performances while they’re available. For Hawkes, this may be the best chance to win an Academy Award he will ever see. While I still think Day-Lewis will walk across the stage February 24’th to accept his third and final golden man, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the Academy goes a different route and offers the award to Hawkes instead. He’s quickly becoming one of the industry’s most consistent performers, and that shouldn’t go unrecognized for much longer.

 

John C. Anderson is a freelance writer, film enthusiast and Foursquare Mayor living in Boston. His movie reviews can be found at Hello, Mr. Anderson. You know, just in case you’re curious.