Fox Searchlight is no slouch at backing Oscar contenders (see "Slumdog Millionaire," "The Descendants," "The Wrestler"). Back in January at Sundance they scooped up "The Sessions," a small film from Australian writer-director Ben Lewin, who had not directed a feature film in 18 years. Why? Because it had the ring of authenticity.
Think "The King's Speech." That movie touched people partly because screenwriter David Seidler knew from stuttering. He had fought it himself. And he was able to bring compassion and understanding to King George's plight. That was the building block for all the other fine work done by Tom Hooper and his cast and crew.
Similarly "The Sessions" starts with a script from Lewin, who suffered polio as a youth and still limps with a cane. Helen Hunt and John Hawkes are nothing if not fussy when they pick roles. They both vetted the script and director and saw rich material in this story about the late great intellectual Mark O'Brien (Hawkes), who wanted more from life than lying immobile in an iron lung. He found a sex surrogate (Hunt) to help him find love in his life. This is not a romance. While the surrogate came to care deeply for O'Brien–within the confines of a professional relationship–she was able to teach him how to make another woman happy.
"I've never seen a story where both of them meet with the intention to give him a future," says Hunt. "Anyone who could write like that, he knew how to tell a story. That's what I clung to before we started."
This intimate sexual souffle is so delicate and sensitive that it could easily have gone flat. Audiences are often uncomfortable with sex in cinema, and this movie embraces moments that are awkward and embarrassing, even humiliating. Both actors were literally naked. "I was vulnerable," says Hunt. "By the end of the day I needed my clothes on."
For his part, Hawkes was in considerable pain as he lay on a soccer-size piece of foam that twisted his spine. "It was a small amount of pain, but it was the most physically challenging thing I've ever done," he says. (See the flipcam interview below.) "I stand in awe of the technical difficulties they faced," says co-star Bill Macy. "They made it look easy on set and on film."
Yet Lewin and his cast keep it on course; they filmed in chronological order, building trust as they went. Both Hawkes (who was nominated for "Winter's Bone") and Hunt (who won best actress for "As Good As It Gets") will earn Oscar nominations. (Searchlight is pushing her for supporting actress.) With this cast, I trust that SAG and Academy actors will watch this movie. Lewin should also be in the running for writing and directing and picture. But it's a small film in a competitive year.
The real battle for Searchlight will be getting audiences to see it. Awards attention should help. The movie is moving and uplifting without an ounce of sentiment or string-pulling, because it's about not settling for less, but striving for something more.
Watch my flipcam interview with John Hawkes below.