The nominations: Supporting Actress
The film: Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) is a thirty-eight year-old poet and journalist who, due to a childhood bought with polio, is paralyzed from the neck down and spends much of his life inside an iron lung for much needed breath support. He spends lot of time frustrated with his helplessness and lack of ability to control his own body. He begins to visit priest Father Brendan (William H. Macy) and Mark is able to frankly discuss all aspects of his life to the openhearted Brendan. Unhappy with the rudimentary nature of his hired attendant, Mark hires a young woman named Amanda to help take care of him. Though she has no experience, Mark is enchanted by her beauty and kind spirit. Though Amanda has a boyfriend, she and Mark develop a deep fondness for each other. But when Mark declares that he loves her, she becomes frightened and frustrated and quits the job. Mark immediately thinks that her denial stems from his inability to be physical. Vera (Moon Bloodgood), the new attendant he hires, is boyish, direct, and experienced in caring for his needs. When Mark gets a journalistic assignment exploring sex and the physically disabled, he becomes curious as to whether or not he could ever experience that physical pleasure himself. After getting a reassuring blessing from Father Brendan, Vera helps him set up a meeting with Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Helen Hunt), a professional sex surrogate, to help him towards losing his virginity.
Cheryl meets with Mark and makes plans to take him on as a client but only for six sessions. Challenged with tailoring the therapy to Mark’s specific needs, Cheryl emphasizes body consciousness and openness. Mark is taken aback with Cheryl’s candid approach as she unashamedly takes off her clothes as well as his. As Cheryl soon discovers Mark’s sensitivity is way above where she expected, setting him off with a single intimate touch, Cheryl starts to teach Mark to be aware of his body and practicing to control it. She soon realizes his trepidations are rooted in the internalized guilt over his illness and tries to teach him to forgive himself and his limitations. Though Cheryl is a happily married mother she is slowly and increasingly affected by Mark’s gratefulness, developing a feared attachment. Mark writes her a love poem, which he sends to her home that angers her husband. Cheryl digs through the trash to read the poem, which is devastatingly ardent and impassioned. Not only has she helped this man through an important human right of passage, she has helped him believe in loving and being loved however passionate or platonic and wherever in between that love may be.
The odds: When making a serious film about sex there can be no fear of how uncomfortable or upset the audience is apt to become, and it is this fearlessness, which The Sessions excels with, that makes it such a poignant film. A chronicle of the real-life four-foot-seven, sixty-pound quadriplegic man Mark O’Brien on a quest of sorts to know physical intimacy in spite of his illness is ripe for disintegrating into mockery if however unintentional. But in the surprisingly capable hands of real-life polio survivor writer/director Ben Lewin and the daring performances of leading actor John Hawkes and supporting actress Helen Hunt, the movie becomes something indelible and essential in the cinematic canon. The movie’s messages about transformation and its power whether through sex or love or will impeccable articulated however unconventional the delivery is. Hawkes, who was unfortunately not nominated, is at home in his dedication to portraying this man and his character that he disappears completely. Only his co-star Hunt, who shows no restraint in her performance choices, matches his emotional intent and vulnerability. At forty-nine years old the actress bares all aspects of her body as well as her soul unabashedly and it’s an applause-worthy feat in every sense. All joking aside over AMPAS’s supposedly glorification of actors who go explicitly nude, Hunt, who has always shown a proclivity for being able to focus all things that make the human condition endearing and beautiful as with her Oscar-winning performance in As Good As It Gets, is superb in her warmth and softness. I love and admire understated performances like these more than I can say, but with the already award-laden Anne Hathaway on a direct path to win the supporting actress category it is likely that this performance, as so many like it do, will become a swift afterthought.