Based on the article “On Seeing a Sexual Surrogate” by the late Mark O’Brien, The Sessions pinpoints on a disabled man’s sexual awakening and his pursuit to lose his virginity. Premiering earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, the comedy/drama proved to be a crowd pleaser where it took home the festival’s audience award. Shortly after, the film was picked up by indie-centered Fox Searchlight Pictures for distribution and is now making the festival rounds before it’s limited release this month. The Sessions is a film that shouldn’t be missed due to the remarkable lead performance by John Hawkes and a heartfelt screenplay courtesy of writer/director Ben Lewin. It’s a rare film that explores sexuality and connection with a little uneasiness, hilarity, and emotion.
Stricken with life threatening polio at the age of six, Mark (John Hawkes) is paralyzed from the neck down. Instead of being sent to a nursing home at a young age, he was taken care of by his own family. Although the disease leaves him bound to a stretcher and in dire need of an iron lung, he attempts to live a full life by graduating from college and continue to pursue his passion in writing with an emphasis in poetry. As a devoted catholic, he goes to his local church on a regular basis to confess to the new priest in town, Father Brendan (William H. Macy). During these confessions, Mark expresses his concerns about his love life, or lack there of. Mark is a bit of a romantic, falling for his beautiful caretaker whom he had just met weeks prior. When he reveals his love for her in a vintage clothing store and asks her to marry him, she coldly rejects him without as much as offering a sympathetic apology.
Clearly upset and embarrassed for what just happened, Mark feels that he can’t do anything right when it comes to finding the right woman. Mark has never been able to experience intimacy with the condition he has. Women always seem to love him but they are never in love with him. Planning to write an article based on the sex life of the disabled, he reveals to Father Brendan that he desires to finally lose his virginity. With the help of a sex therapist, Mark gets into contact with a sex surrogate by the name of Cheryl (Helen Hunt) whom specializes in working with her clients to help them experience the “pleasures” in life. Having only six sessions together, Cheryl must get Mark up to speed on intimacy and erotic experience. During the sessions, she learns much about his personal life. Because of this, what starts off as strictly business turns into a profound connection between the two of them.
The Sessions is unquestionably one of the top ten films of the year. Writer/director Ben Lewin, who actually used to have polio, precisely balances the comedy and drama together so well. This is only part of the reason why the film works so well. The other part of the reason why this film works is because of the narrative and performances. The narrative of the film is very character focused which is vital for a film to stand out from the distinct amount of trash that floods the multiplexes in the modern day. The development of the two central characters, especially Mark, is what makes the audience ultimately care to follow him on his journey. From the very first scene, you can’t help but be drawn to him because of his witty humor and his humorous attempts at being charming.
Actor John Hawkes continues his lucky streak with not only getting great roles, but also inhabiting the character in which he portrays. With strong performances in Winter’s Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene, Hawkes follows up those eerie performances with a performance that could very well garner his second Oscar nomination. John Hawkes’ performance as Mark O’Brien is remarkable. When you watch this film, you forget that you’re watching an actor act. John Hawkes becomes this character and inhabits every detail and mannerism. I would go as far to say that his performance is up in the ranks with Dustin Hoffman’s performance in Rain Man. With a nasally voice, Mark speaks with intelligence and wittiness. His awkward body frame and position of his head makes you feel as if John Hawkes has polio himself. It seems clear to me that this is a passionate and dedicated performance that shouldn’t go unnoticed during the upcoming award season. His performance makes his character believable, which in turn, highly benefits the film itself.
The film also marks Helen Hunt’s best performance since 1997’s As Good As It Gets. Her performance reveals a side to Helen Hunt we haven’t seen in many films before. If you’ve seen the film, you will understand what I mean. If you haven’t seen the film, you still probably know what I mean. Her character, Cheryl, has two different lives. She has the life of a woman who has the untraditional career of having sex without being deemed as a prostitute. Her other life is a mother of a teenager, wife of a “philosopher”, and an owner of a beautiful home. Her two lives never intersect but after meeting Mark, keeping the two lives from intersecting becomes a difficult task. Helen Hunt gives a strong performance as she tries to keep professional when she starts to connect with Mark on a more personal level. Although he wasn’t in the film as much as he should’ve been, William H. Macy provides a lot of the comic relief as Father Brendan. He’s a priest of the Catholic Church who tries the best to his ability to provide advice for Mark.
Once the film shows up at a theater close to you, I would highly recommend spending the full admission price and see this film. As mentioned before, it’s a rare film that is hilarious and is profoundly emotional as we become follow Mark on his sexual awakening. The character-focused narrative, the performances, and the profound emotion assure that The Sessions is bound for gold. The film is going to be released in limited theaters starting October 19th.
The Sessions – 9.5/10