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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Saturday, Aug. 30, 2014

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Helen Hunt and John Hawkes star in "The Sessions," in wide release now.
Helen Hunt and John Hawkes star in "The Sessions," in wide release now.

Make an appointment for "The Sessions"

This may be hard to believe (especially with the recent Guy Fieri/New York Times debacle), but critics can have a heart. We may pretend to have cold, black obsidian hearts protected by an impenetrable outer shell of snarky comments and grumpy nitpicks, but really, we love a satisfying cry or emotional moment as much as the next person. It just needs to be done right.

Case in point: "The Sessions," a sweet, honest, sincere and funny indie sensation that toggles just the right emotional switches to hit the waterworks jackpot. Considering Hollywood's typical brand of cloying tearjerkers, it's a delightful surprise to find a movie that can get the tears flowing without guilt.

Oscar-nominee John Hawkes stars as real-life journalist and poet Mark O'Brien. Stricken with polio as a child, Mark is unable to move any part of his body other than his head and is forced to spend most of his life inside a life-saving, but also constricting, iron lung. Despite his affliction, however, Mark decides that at the age of 38, he wants to lose his virginity.

With the blessing of a friendly local priest and confidant (William H. Macy), Mark hires Cheryl, a sex surrogate played by Helen Hunt, to help him learn how to control and find comfort in the frail body that has served as his prison for so long.

As the sessions continue and their intimacy increases, their relationship becomes more emotionally complicated. Mark starts to view Cheryl as a pillar of support – both physically and mentally – and Cheryl worries about what the end of their relationship could do to his feelings of guilt and self-loathing.

Hawkes has gained a ton of Oscar buzz for his turn as O'Brien. It's the kind of transformative, showy role that the Academy loves this time of year. The incredible part about Hawkes' performance, however, is that it doesn't feel like he's putting on a show for awards attention. He effortlessly embodies the character physically – the crooked posture, the timid weak voice – and mentally.

It's a great performance that isn't aware of how it's impressing the audience; it's just impressive, even more so since Hawkes only has his face and head to captivate viewers.

Some pretty spot-on supporting actors surround the "Winter's Bone" alum as well. Hunt, who's mostly disappeared from movies since 2000 ("Soul Surfer" and "Bobby" are her only major releases in the past five years), makes a welcome and brave return to the screen. Her Boston accent is a little sketchy, but her connection with Hawkes' character – a mixture of admiration, attraction and worried wariness – is undeniable.

Macy steals a number of scenes as well as Mark's spiritual advisor. He's equally adept with the comedic part of his role, in addition to the more serious moments when he deliberates over what God would think of Mark – a devoted man of religion – and his desire to do the deed. As "The Sessions" goes on, he has little to do besides provide comedic reactions to Mark's escalatingly erotic encounters, but Macy still charms.

Writer/director Ben Lewin not only guides the actors well but also the film's complicated emotions. It is a comedy, but at the same time, it's a remarkably honest and insightful story. Lewin – a polio survivor himself – really gets inside the mind of O'Brien, tapping into the man's delicate insecurities and sensibilities (though he's strongly religious, he believes God to have a "wicked sense of humor").

Sometimes, in fact, you almost wish they delved into them more. Cheryl's discovery of Mark's inner fears about his body and guilt about what his condition has done to those he's loved feel rather quickly integrated into the screenplay. However, the fact that Lewin taps into these insights – and gets Hawkes to portray them with such nuance – is still a modest marvel.

Much like the Milwaukee Film Festival's "Starbuck," it takes a storyline seemingly headed for crass disaster and turns it into something surprisingly touching. Yes, there are certainly laughs to be had, but the relationship and struggle at the core of "The Sessions" is seriously human. The movie treats it earnestly and with respect, and therefore the audience does as well.

Plus, Lewin also thankfully portrays the disabled not as figures of pity or charity cases, but as regular people just as capable of love and sex as anyone else. Too many times, Hollywood tries to turn the handicapped into saintly messiah figures instead of giving them the respect of being fully developed characters, flaws and complications included. "The Sessions" does and is all the richer and more satisfying as a result.

Mark O'Brien may not have had the ability to move, but his story certainly does – maybe even to tears. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

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