Based on a true story, The Sessions is a film that focuses on 38 year-old poet Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), who is paralyzed from the neck down as a result of having polio. When he is not getting breathing assistance from an iron lung machine, Mark writes articles on living with disabilities. After being asked to write an article on the sexual habits of people with a disability, and having his romantic affections constantly rejected, Mark decides that it is time for him to lose his virginity. Strong in his religious beliefs, Mark seeks a blessing to pursue this venture from Father Brendan (William H. Macy), a priest in whom he frequently confides.
When Father Brendan assures Mark that God will give him a “free pass on this one”, Mark sets out to find a sex surrogate. Mark’s search leads him to Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt), a surrogate who has strict rules regarding her clients only getting six sessions. Not what most would typical expect a sex surrogate to be, Cheryl lives a normal life with her husband and son. As the pair conducts their sessions, Mark must confront both anxieties about sex and emotional issues from his past. The encounters also begin to have an unexpected impact on Cheryl as well. She not only struggles with how to handle Mark’s growing affection for her, but also the feelings she is developing as well.
The Sessions is a film that is a crowd pleaser in every sense of the word. It is a comedy that packs just the right amount of emotional punch to ensure that the film resonates with audiences. Unlike most films today that focus on losing one’s virginity, the film takes a more realistic and mature approach to the notion of sex. Although the thought of sex brings an equal rush of excitement and fear to Mark, most of the other characters in the film view the act, while enjoyable, as something that is made out to be far greater than it really is. One of Mark’s caregiver assistants informs Mark that he actually prefers other sexual acts, but for some reason it is not considered official unless intercourse is involved.
By deglamourizing the way most films usually portray sex and sexuality, director Ben Lewin is able to provide a more honest representation of how real people actually dissect sex. This also allows him to offer a tasteful, yet still humorous, approach to showcasing the sexual needs of those living with physical disabilities. In one amusing moment early on in the film, Mark and his daytime assistant Vera (Moon Bloodgood) are stunned by the sexual frankness of the individuals with disabilities that they are interviewing. Lewin sharply shows that a physical disability does not necessarily hinder a person’s sexual appetite, but just forces them to be more creative.
It would be remiss to talk about the honest portrayal of persons living with disabilities and not mention John Hawkes wonderful performance. Relying solely on his voice and facial gestures, Hawkes manages to make Mark far more than just a person you feel sorry for. In fact, you cannot help but root for him during his highs and lows. Those who have become accustomed to seeing a more menacing side of Hawkes from his performances in films like Winter’s Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene will be shocked to see how well he not only displays his comedic chops, but his vulnerability as well. Do not be surprised if you see his name in contention come award session.
While Hawkes and Macy deliver the level of performances that you come to expect from them, the real scene stealer of the film is Helen Hunt. Though a capable actress in her own right, Hunt has not had a role this meaty in quiet sometime and nails every minute of it. Similar to Hawkes, Hunt displays a vulnerability that is truly fascinating while still maintaining the characters overall strength. She portrays Cheryl as not only a woman who is comfortable in her own skin, but she is also aware of the therapeutic importance of her work. She makes it clear early on that she is not a prostitute and the audience never for a moment views her as one. It is actually rather refreshing to see such a fully realized female character on the big screen.
The Sessions is a film that is destined to win over audiences with its comedy and overall message. However, it is the performances from John Hawkes and Helen Hunt that will have people talking come award season. They are two of the finest performances you will see this year.