Day 15 of the Milwaukee Film Festival brought an end to the festivities, but not before a screening of one of the big gets of the festival, The Sessions. The Sessions has been on the film festival radar since Sundance and has heavy Oscar buzz, so there was a lot of hype to live up to. And, for the most part, The Sessions does live up to that hype.
Based on a real story, John Hawkes stars as poet / journalist Mark O’Brien, a man mostly confined to an iron lung, except for 3 to 4 hour excursions, due to childhood polio. Hawkes acts only with his face and voice, but creates a full portrait without being able to rely on anything else. You can see his charm, warmth, and intelligence shine through but also his frustration with his condition, his vulnerability, and his need to make a connection with someone who will love him which frustrates him to no end. He makes the momentous decision to hire a sex surrogate, and you watch his fear and confidence emerge through those sessions as his defenses crack and he opens up.
Which is where Helen Hunt enters the picture as the sex surrogate Cheryl. I don’t quite buy her arc, the writers decide that she must fall for John Hawkes to a degree and she comes off much too clinical in her first session (hasn’t she done this before?), but she’s terrific despite some sketchy writing. I hesitate to call a performance “brave”, but she’s nearing 50 when many people would be self conscious about their body and decides to bare it all. She finds a believable middle ground throughout being sexual, without being a sexpot, and balancing that with a soccer mom persona.
William H. Macy also features in the film, playing Mark O’Brien’s priest who hears his confessions and tries his best to stay true to his faith but support a man who was dealt a bad hand, choosing the path of mercy and understanding. Macy may not have the biggest part, but he brings it his all offering support in all the best ways of an actor.
All of this may sound like serious stuff, but it’s dealt with a very deft and often funny hand. I do think it’s perhaps too sympathetic towards Mark and that it could stand to puncture some of his bullshit. But, otherwise, it’s a well made actors’ showcase that feels like the victories are ultimately earned.
The Milwaukee Film Festival is earning some substantial victories as well. Attendance was up 40% this year and it’s on good ground for next year and the foreseeable future. They may have to think about upgrading the logistics of the festival to keep up with the growth. It looks like it’s going to be a fixture of Milwaukee for years to come.