[xrr rating=2.5/5]Judging a film based on the experiences of a real person is always a tricky prospect. On one hand, there’s always the suspicion that the filmmakers are applying the cinematic equivalent of Vaseline onto the lens for dramatic purposes. On the other, it feels harsh to disparage someone’s life because it doesn’t come across well on the big screen. The Sessions is based on the life (and specifically a window of time in his final years) of Mark O’Brien, a California-based poet and journalist, and to its credit, it doesn’t ever approach the easy melodrama of an artificial climax or life-altering decision to force a sense of narrative. Instead, it actually has an unusual sense of realism in that it’s loosely paced and draws its strengths from the easygoing nature of its protagonist. But that’s its downside as well: like real life itself, The Sessions often feels like it’s going nowhere in particular.

O’Brien (played with a combination of vulnerability and dry wit by John Hawkes) contracted polio as a young boy and remained incapacitated for the rest of his life. While he was not exactly paralyzed (which the film makes an effort to point out), he relied upon attendants for many day to day tasks and spent the majority of his life in an iron lung to survive. But by all reports, he was also a fiercely independent man in his own way, graduating from the University of California at Berkeley and publishing many journalistic articles and several collections of poetry. But The Sessions relays this information as a brief broadcast news story in the opening moments of the film; it’s far more interested in how, at age 38, he decided to lose his virginity to a sex surrogate named Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt).

To its credit, The Sessions is not a particularly salacious movie. In fact, it could be better defined as a gentle, somewhat sad comedy. It places little judgment on O’Brien’s choice, or on Cohen Greene’s profession. Neither does it portray their relationship as one fraught with tension or suffering. Instead, it focuses on O’Brien as a gentle, deeply religious man who consults with his local priest (William H. Macy) before delving into the world of sexuality, and Cohen Greene as a woman dedicated to her clients, but with strict professional standards that she struggles to maintain. The majority of the plot deals with the growing relationship between the two, and specifically their sexual interactions, which are addressed remarkably straightforwardly. Spoiler: there’s quite a bit of full frontal nudity and premature ejaculation.

But while the wavering line between friends/lovers/therapist and patient is well drawn between the two, many of the other relationships are much less developed. Vera (Moon Bloodgood), one of O’Brien’s attendants, is a consistent source of humor, but her relationship to her employer so swiftly switches from wary to comfortably companionable that it’s jarring. Similarly, while O’Brien’s interactions with his priest are consistently hilarious (more like jaw sessions between friends than the confessions they ostensibly are), there’s so little indication of Macy’s character’s background or interests that he only functions as a sounding board.

The Sessions succeeds almost wholly on Hawkes’ amazing ability to inhabit his roles. While he’s gained recognition for his intensity in “Deadwood” and Winter’s Bone, Hawkes is comparatively (and deceptively) laid back here. Though he reportedly trained and controlled his body to physical extremes to prepare for the role, he genuinely seems so wrapped in O’Brien’s skin that it’s easy to forget that he’s acting. But one commanding lead performance (and to give credit where due, a solid foil in Hunt’s no nonsense sexuality) can’t pull an entire film together, particularly one that meanders so often and leaves so many characters undeveloped. Even if director/writer Ben Lewin is going for the reality of O’Brien’s life, it simply feels unformed at times. That may be real, but it doesn’t make for consistently good cinema.

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