Review: The Sessions (Lewin, 2012)

Still from the movie The Sessions

I swear John Hawkes is completely different in every role–Teardrop in Winter’s Bone, the chilling cult leader Patrick in Martha Marcy May Marlene, and I didn’t even notice him as Robert Latham in Lincoln. He simply disappears into his characters. Either he’s an everyman, or Hawkes the person is just so subsumed in every role that any sense of identity that could cross over from one character to the next has been wiped out. In The Sessions (formerly, The Surrogate), Hawkes plays someone quite the opposite of Teardrop or Patrick (if one can be the opposite of two different people). His character Mark is a funny, effusive, optimistic poet/journalist crippled by polio who spends much of his time in an iron lung and writes with his mouth by pushing a pencil at a typewriter. (Apparently in real life it was a computer, but we all agree that typewriters are more cinematic.)

The lightheartedness of the movie took me quite by surprise. Not realizing it was billed as a comedy, I was expecting tortured scenes of uncertainty and despair. In reading Mark O’Brien’s essay, “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate,” on which the film is based, I see that my original hunch is closer to the truth laid out in the article. But the film also pulls from external source material about O’Brien’s life, which may have been generally cheerier than the last few lines of his essay would suggest.

Regardless, it was difficult to recognize Helen Hunt in the sex surrogate that O’Brien describes. If Hawkes is a chameleon, Hunt seems to me always to be the same sensitive, self-protecting, prickly woman in every film. Her portrayal here reminds me especially of her character in As Good As It Gets: generous savior with an edge of impatience, bordering on intolerance, in her voice. She seems fragile. I don’t know if she means to. If I met her in real life, I’d be constantly afraid of saying the wrong thing. She’d tell you, but she wouldn’t hold it against you. That’s the sense I get.

Ultimately, I enjoyed the film, though something in me is a little dissatisfied. Was it the too-sugary ending? I can’t quite put my finger on it…

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