Breathless — A moving, human-scale portrait does so much right
Published: November 5, 2012
The Sessions | B+
"I have to believe in God, it would be unbearable not to have someone to blame."
—Poet and journalist Mark O'Brien
Autumn is often viewed as a season of smart and adult cinema. Or, as it is known by insiders, "Oscar bait." Hollywood prestige films (Lincoln, Les Miserables), handsome middle-brow dramas (Argo, Flight, The Impossible), indie-spirited flicks with A-list casts (Silver Linings Playbook, Hyde Park on the Hudson) and top-tier franchises (The Hobbit, James Bond) wrestle for word-of-mouth award considerations and holiday box office. This year's crop is particularly promising. But amid all the pomp and circumstance it would be a big mistake to overlook Ben Lewin's blunt, refreshingly nuanced and ultimately poignant The Sessions. It also helps that John Hawkes (Winter's Bone) delivers one of the year's best performances.
Mark O'Brien (Hawkes) suffered from childhood polio and ended up immobilized from the neck down and unable to breathe for long without artificial respiration. But where his body was enfeebled, his mind and sense of humor were sharpened. (You can watch Jessica Yu's Oscar-winning documentary short about his life, Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O'Brien online). Earning a degree at Berkeley and eventually becoming a journalist and poet, he decided at the age of 38 that it was time to lose his virginity. His initial attempts at romance, particularly with a young caretaker (Annika Marks), fail so he enlists the help of a sex surrogate and therapist named Cheryl (Helen Hunt), who gradually opens herself up to this unique and sensitive man. But along with the emotional and physical challenges of intercourse, Mark also struggles to reconcile the morality of his choices with his Roman Catholic upbringing. To help him along his path, Mark confides in Father Brendan (William H. Macy), a hip and understanding priest.
A modest and delicate film, this is no mawkish disease-of-the-week tale of triumphalism. It is instead a tender, human-sized portrait of a smart, funny and religiously devout man who is keenly aware of his longing, physical limitations and, most importantly, emotional inexperience with sexual intimacy. The 66-year-old director Lewin, who overcame a bout of polio as a child himself, adopts O'Brien's rueful sense of curiosity for the overall tone of the film, engaging with the sexualized subject matter in surprisingly blunt and adult terms (Hunt's frequent nudity is handled with both respect and clinically believable). Instances of humor, faith and human decency dominate, as Mark's disabilities and desires are dealt with in a restrained and straightforward manner. But for all the nudity on display, you could even describe The Sessions as chaste.
And part of that comes from Hawkes' matter-of-fact charm. Lying on his back and delivering his lines in a thin, reedy voice, he conveys the fierce intelligence of a man who is simultaneously innocent, acerbic and astute. It is a remarkably expressive and soulful performance that conveys O'Brien's ever-watchful approach to life. The rest of the cast is nearly as good. Hunt, whose character is far less richly written, provides a gentle yet insightful portrait of a woman who must balance her professionalism with the inevitable intimacy of her job. Macy, of course, provides much of the film's more comically buoyant moments, as the man of God who ends up encouraging Mark's sins of the flesh. Even smaller supporting roles, like that of Moon Bloodgood's student aide, are winning.
Unfortunately, the direction is, at best, workmanlike, no doubt reflective of Lewin's career in television. His script, however, makes the savvy choice to use O'Brien's own journalism and poetry in voice-overs and dialogue. This approach sidesteps the mawkishness that often accompanies tales of the disabled, and instead goes a long way to establishing Mark as a flesh and blood person rather than a plastic saint of suffering. The story only drifts toward melodrama in its final moments as the need for an emotionally uplifting finale is delivered to those uncomfortable with ambiguity and emotionally frayed endings. But until then, this small film surprises with its lack of solemnity by capturing the essence of a man who lived far beyond the confines of the iron lung that kept him alive.
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