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The Price of Polio 

John Hawkes' work as a paralyzed poet in 'The Sessions' is simply stunning

It was probably the departed HBO series Deadwood that garnered him the first steady attention of his career, but John Hawkes has been in show business since the mid-'80s, mostly with one-off TV appearances and the kind of indie films that make other indie films look like blockbusters. Out of nowhere, his impressive work in Winter's Bone garnered Hawkes an Oscar nomination, and he gained more steam playing another creepy villain in last year's Martha Marcy May Marlene.

And now there is The Sessions, which showcases for anyone relatively new to the John Hawkes party—which would be the vast majority of us—an entirely different tool kit. Put simply, this guy is an actor's actor, and it's a genuine pleasure to watch him work.

Hawkes portrays Mark O'Brien, a poet who can't get laid. There is more to it than that, of course, but sexual frustration is the character's existential dilemma. In reality, the actual Mark O'Brien suffered from polio as a child and had to spend most of his time in an iron lung. He got an English degree at the University of California at Berkeley, and freelanced the occasional odd writing job. But at age 38, Mark confides in his priest (William H. Macy) that he's reached his "use-by date," and is considering hiring a sex therapist.

This poses problems on multiple fronts. There is the moral consequence (for a Catholic, at least) of pre-marital sex and hiring a sex worker ... so long as you don't reach all the way back to the Old Testament, where prostitution was more of a gray area. That vexes the priest. There are also Mark's physical limitations: He's confined to a gurney and only able to move his head.

Mark's polio is, if not exactly played for laughs, the subject of some of the film's consistent levity. Mark wants to be normal in every way he can, and neither he nor the film uses his disability to wring extra sympathy out of the audience. He's come to terms with the person he is and what he has to offer, and after a few minutes, viewers do, too.

It's always a delicate balance in these situations, but writer-director Ben Lewin—who based his screenplay on Mark O'Brien's own article on this subject—never presents Mark as a doomed character or one defined by his polio. Perhaps that's because Lewin is himself a polio survivor, and has achieved a 35-year career behind the camera in spite of it; he knows firsthand that contracting a disease doesn't make someone a permanent victim.

Mark's quest leads him to Cheryl (Helen Hunt), a sex surrogate who will work with him, not just to have sex, but to find emotional and physical comfort through it, which she believes will give him more self-esteem. The handful of sex scenes go from hilariously brief to more delicate and heartfelt. They're also not shy scenes, if you catch the drift. And they need to show as much as possible, less because of Mark's sexual naïveté and more because of his issues with intimacy, which are different animals.

Because Lewin doesn't see Mark O'Brien as a protected species, The Sessions is allowed to be as funny and absurd as any other movie about virginity. That really is what's on the table here; it's just not viewed through the eyes of a pimply high school kid or Steve Carell. But the ups and downs are remarkably similar, even if The Sessions has a more mature way of processing them.

You can find a documentary online called Breathing Lessons. It was produced in 1996 and won an Oscar; it details Mark O'Brien's life and work. It is probably best to see The Sessions first and then compare, if you wish, the performance by Hawkes with the real thing. Hawkes' portrayal is remarkable on its own, but seeing it side by side with the actual Mark O'Brien not only instructs you about how close he came to the target—but how difficult of a target that was to hit.

Although Mark (who died in 1999) couldn't move his limbs, he wasn't just lying comfortably; in fact, his spine was wildly contorted. That meant John Hawkes couldn't rest comfortably, either. He and the props department developed a device to push his spine in one direction during scenes, and the actor now reports that he may have unwittingly migrated organs during the process, pushing things where they're not meant to be. Hawkes has said during the press rounds for the film that he may carry some pain with him for the rest of his life. And once you see The Sessions, it's likely that you'll carry some of that with you for a while yourself.

The Sessions
Rated R · 95 minutes · 2013
Official Site: www.foxsearchlight.com/thesessions
Director: Ben Lewin
Producer: Judi Levine and Stephen Nemeth
Cast: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William Macy, Moon Bloodgood, Annika Marks, Adam Arkin and W. Brown

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What others are saying (13)

Memphis Flyer The Sessions A generous, surprising sex comedy of sorts. by Chris Herrington 11/15/2012
East Bay Express The Sessions Touched by an angel. by Kelly Vance 10/31/2012
Indy Week The Sessions is limp for not showing dick The heart of The Sessions may be just and good, but it's really after-school-special stuff. by David Fellerath 11/07/2012
10 more reviews...
East Bay Express Sex Surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene Discusses Her Memoir That Inspired 'The Sessions' How a sexually repressed childhood led to a life as a sex surrogate. by Alison Peters 10/31/2012
Boise Weekly Let's Get Meta-physical The film is touching, quite funny, very lovely to look at and intellectually mature by George Prentice 11/21/2012
Portland Mercury Sex Ed The Sessions showcases the healing powers of Helen Hunt. by Alison Hallett 11/01/2012
The Coast Halifax The Sessions Simple and disarmingly funny by Jacob Boon 11/15/2012
Creative Loafing Atlanta The Sessions tries a little tenderness with its sexual candor Warm-hearted biopic's bedroom sexploits are a long time coming by Curt Holman 10/31/2012
East Bay Express The Ten Best Movies of 2012 This year, it was all about genre. by Kelly Vance 12/26/2012
Colorado Springs Independent Civil intercourse: The Sessions A quite genial look at a severely disabled man who hires a sex surrogate to help him lose his virginity before he dies. by Justin Strout 11/14/2012
Creative Loafing Charlotte The Sessions: Virgin territory Rating: **1/2 by Matt Brunson 11/09/2012
Style Weekly Movie Review: "The Sessions" This polio survivor's tale is one of the best comedies in years. by Ted Salins 12/04/2012

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