The word can't is either missing from, or torn out of Mark O'Brien's dictionary. Mark (John Hawkes), despite being a paraplegic, has graduated college, earned his Master's Degree, started his own publishing company and released dozens of books of poetry. In all of that time, however, he has not shared love with a woman. Success has not been missing from his life, yet he feels a hole that should finally be looked at. Even at age 36.
These "based on a true story" tales are often derided for saccharine cliches that inevitably remove all interest from the non-fiction, yet this is not the case for The Sessions.
Mark may be confined to an iron lung and he may not have long, but The Sessions is no tale of woe. There is a sense of warmth infused throughout the film that tempers what could be a very dampened storyline. One of those key sources is William H. Macy as Father Brendan.
Premarital sex is most definitely a no-no in the eyes of the Catholic Church, but how could God begrudge Mark on his quest given everything he has lived with? Whereas Father Brendan is torn about Mark's goal, Cheryl (Helen Hunt) is sure-handed. In six sessions she will provide the advice, training and understanding for Mark to be able to have a successful relationship with a woman.
John Hawkes has always been known as that guy in whatever film he appears. You may not recognize his name, but you know his face. He sent shivers down your spine as the stoic-but-deadly Teardrop in Winter's Bone and the charismatic cult leader Patrick in Martha Marcy May Marlene. That Sessions succeeds as it does with Hawkes as its leading man is another testament to his talents.
Hawkes and Hunt leave nothing on the table in their performances, both prove willing to disappear completely into the respective roles they are given. Blurbs like "outstanding performance" and "guaranteed Oscar nomination" are thrown around quite a bit, but given what little canvas Hawkes is able to use for his role as Mark O'Brien, he really should be commended. Given the physical restraints Hawkes had, he couldn't give loud, grandiose speeches, or wrench himself in tears, so the trembles in his voice and the expression in his eyes must make for everything.
The Sessions may not receive the loads of gold statues that other winter fare will, but if one thing is for sure, the cast shines well enough anyway.