Starring: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy
Directed by: Ben Lewin (“Paperback Romance”)
Written by: Ben Lewin (“Paperback Romance”)

Every January, the Sundance Film Festival is held in Utah where the table is set for the independent film industry to introduce some of the best projects they have to offer. Through the years, films get their big debut in Sundance and the buzz is strong enough to carry them into the next calender year. It happened to 2009’s Audience Award winner, “Precious,” which rode its wave all the way to a couple of Oscar wins.

Some films, however, make a splash in Sundance and then fizzle out. For example, 2010’s Audience Award winner, “happythankyoumoreplease,” earned mostly negative critic reviews and basically disappeared from the radar after the festival.  As 2012’s Audience Award winner, the Fox Searchlight acquired dramedy “The Sessions” vies to be the next Sundance hit to make some noise in the Academy Award race.

“The Sessions” tells the true-life story of Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), a man who has lived with polio for many years and is forced to spend time in an iron lung so he can survive. Approaching 40, Mark decides he finally wants to lose his virginity. To accomplish this, he hires a sex surrogate named Cheryl Greene (Helen Hunt) and consults his priest (William H. Macy) for spiritual advice.

After turning in fantastic performances as total creeps in consecutive years in “Winter’s Bone” and “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” Hawkes gets to show his versatility in “The Sessions” playing a weak and vulnerable character. Simply put, Hawkes is transformative. He adapts a specific voice, different mannerisms, and is totally believable and sincere as he gives a physically-restraining performance where he can only emote through facial expressions and speech. Grating Boston accent aside, Hunt’s performance is decent, albeit a little one-dimensional. The one curveball of the main cast is Macy, who always entertaining in his time on screen, but is occasionally an awkward or ill-fitting presence in certain scenes.

For a film so heavily centered on sex, “The Sessions” is decidedly tame. The film is often so lighthearted that if Helen Hunt weren’t completely nude for half of the movie, it would probably be rated much, much lower on the MPAA scale. The biggest reason the film is so mild comes from Lewin’s screenplay. The self-deprecating jokes from Mark are cutesy, there’s flowery poetry, and the majority of the other dialogue is toothless. The script isn’t particularly smart, doesn’t have many surprises and falls into place exactly how one might think it would. This is most evident in a contrived scene in the last “session” between Mark and Cheryl.

The film will no doubt be a mainstream crowd pleaser, something that is evident by its Audience Award from Sundance. What is also evident, however, is that “The Sessions” is pure Oscar bait.  It’s harmless, inoffensive and vanilla cinema that features a strong lead performance that will certainly create some Oscar buzz. By no means is “The Sessions” a bad film, but it is starving for something other than the great performance from Hawkes to truly stand out.

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