The best performances emerge when actors are able to strip away all of the trappings of their own lives and slip into the skin of the character they're playing. This only works if the actors are able to bare their acting soul without any fear or hesitation.
John Hawkes and Helen Hunt manage such magical and Oscar-worthy transformations for "The Sessions." The film, set in the late 1980s, is based on the true story of Mark O'Brien (Hawkes), a writer confined to an iron lung because of a childhood battle with polio. His mind is able to take trips of fancy, but he's trapped inside a generally lifeless body. O'Brien decides that as a thirtysomething, it's time he experiences having sex and turns to a surrogate, Cheryl (Hunt).
Their series of encounters start as a clinical exercise to see how O'Brien's body will react to outside stimulation. As their attempts continue, both begin to develop a deep respect and appreciation for the other. Dealing with those emotions take both to places they know are forbidden.
Hawkes and Hunt accomplish the monumental task of transforming themselves into these characters while being physically stripped naked through major portions of the movie. They both play each moment -- moments that could have been reduced to merely titillating scenes -- so naturally and with such unabashed charm that the performances resonate with heart-breaking honesty.
Hawkes is magnificent despite being stripped of almost all his acting tools. All he has is his very expressive face and the emotion he brings to every word of dialogue to create a performance that will emotionally connect with anyone who sees it. These are the kind of acting roles the Oscar voters love to honor.
Hunt's performance may get overshadowed by Hawkes. But in many ways she manages to turn in the best performance of her career. She's playing a woman secure enough of herself to engage in the most personal of acts with a stranger, but not so clinical as to hide the painful realities that haunt her own life.
The combination of Hawkes and Hunt makes a beautiful act an emotional and moving event through their beautiful acting.
Part of dealing with this sensitive material so skillfully comes from writer/director Ben Lewin, who has had his own battle with polio. The director was able to tell such a deep and revealing story without allowing the performances to slip into melodrama because of his understanding of this story. Lewin makes his characters very human by exposing all their flaws and that makes it easier to connect with them so completely.
"The Sessions" could have collapsed into a tawdry tale with one flawed acting moment. Those miscues never come and "The Sessions" ends up a triumph of the heart in a world where the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.
"The Sessions," rated R for nudity, sexual situations, language. Stars John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy, Moon Bloodgood. Directed by Ben Lewin. Running time: 98 minutes. Grade: A-
TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, firstname.lastname@example.org or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.