John Hawkes steals the heart in 'The Sessions'

Posted by · 9:53 am · August 17th, 2012

One of the first screenings I caught here in New York this week was Ben Lewin’s “The Sessions,” which I saw yesterday. The film debuted at Sundance (where it was called “The Surrogate”) to much acclaim and became an instant contender for Best Actor (John Hawkes) and Best Actress (Helen Hunt). William H. Macy’s supporting performance could also be a player.

It’s a very emotional film, ultimately, even if it gets there with a lighter touch. Much of that has to do with Hawkes’s fantastic performance, carving an endearing portrait of real-life polio sufferer Mark O’Brien. O’Brien was a Berkeley poet and journalist who spent the majority of his waking hours in an iron lung and, toward the end of his life, wanted to know the pleasure of being with a woman. But the film ends up being about way more than the physical joy of sex, navigating a path of spirituality and humanity toward that most important of life’s offerings: intimate human connection.

Hunt is great throughout, sporting her birthday suit bravely while traveling along a profound personal character arc, while Macy — the crux of much of the film’s interesting religious considerations — is a fine constant throughout. I would have liked a more dynamic edge to his character, however, maybe a few considerable moments that would have fleshed his character out more. But the story of the film is Hawkes, and I’ll join the chorus in believing he’s on course for a Best Actor nomination.

Hawkes’s recent history with Sundance has been intriguing. “The Sessions” was his third-straight premiere in Park City. The first of that run, “Winter’s Bone,” brought him a Best Supporting Actor nod and really threw him onto the radar for those who weren’t already aware of his considerable character actor capabilities.

And now, “The Sessions” brings him into leading man territory, finally. He’s so moving in the role, so real, and just so lovable. It could be an interesting race between him and his “Lincoln” co-star Daniel Day-Lewis this season.

It’s worth pointing out that Jessica Yu’s 1996 film about O’Brien, “Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien,” took home the Oscar for Best Documentary Short. You can actually watch that, courtesy of Snag Films, at the bottom of this post.

“The film doesn’t build in some over-the-top manipulation in order to make its points, but instead focuses on the small details,” Drew McWeeny wrote of “The Sessions” out of Sundance in his measured review. “As a result, when it does pay off, it’s in a very organic way.”

Meanwhile, MSN Movies has debuted the first poster for the film. It plays heavily on light-hearted hues. I wouldn’t say it necessarily betrays the spirit of the movie (because Lewin — whose script is well-wrought — never bogs down in drama), but it does seem to represent a feeling that I didn’t really take from the film. I prefer the first attempt. Anyway, check the new one out below as well.

“The Sessions” plays the Toronto Film Festival next month. It opens in limited release on October 26.

The Sessions

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