Of course, Lewin couldn't have accomplished this without awesome performances from his lead actors. John Hawkes, who won an Oscar nomination for his turn as a backwoods meth dealer in 2010's Winter's Bone, plays O'Brien with a brazen, wry ferocity. Using a painfully uncomfortable bolster, he contorts his body into something ravaged by disease, and he modulates his breathing and speech to affect someone requiring nearly 60 pounds of pressure to keep the air moving in and out.
During the sex sessions, Hawkes is genuinely, believably awkward, and his costar, the wonderfully talented Helen Hunt, is flat-out courageous. She fully exposes herself, no airbrushing or teasing placements of fabric in place. Her character is a trained psychologist with a husband and teenage son at home, and she knows the limits like the back of her hand. But Hunt can't help letting the other person in, and that, more than losing his virginity, was what the real Mark O'Brien wanted. Both Hawkes and Hunt are deserving of award nominations for their work on this film.
Smaller roles in The Sessions, including that of William H. Macy, who plays the Catholic priest, and relative newcomer Annika Marks, who plays one of O'Brien's caregivers, further enrich the film.
The Sessions could easily have come off as sappy or voyeuristic — even icky. And while it's in your face, it's also gentle and life-reaffirming and loving. You won't want to look away.
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