Hawkes and Hunt soar in “The Sessions”

The Sessions, written and directed by Ben Lewin, is a poignantly powerful and beautiful story and film – one that may just be the year’s best.

Inspired by California-based writer Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), The Sessions shares the story of a man, who at the age of 38, is determined to lose his virginity, after spending most of his life in an iron lung.  Under the guidance of his therapist and his priest (William H. Macy), Mark contacts a professional sex-surrogate named Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Helen Hunt).  Together, Cheryl and Mark work through “sessions” to make his dreams become reality.

Based on O’Brien’s life, following a childhood bout with polio, and article “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate,” The Sessions boldly challenges conventions some harbor about sexuality and the physically disabled.  Disability and the act and discussion of sex are frankly presented in a warm, honest and witty, often times humorous way.  In his statement, Director Ben Lewin cites his own experience with polio as being the motivation to make the movie. Of the process, Lewin noted, “Shooting this movie was a unique experience.  It was beyond fun, it was joyful and, when it was over, it was painfully sad.”

Lewin’s passion for the film is evident in the finished product.  The Sessions is a refreshingly unique experience – it is joyful and sad, but above all, it is a story of hope and self-discovery. A story that defies perceived normalcy, and offers an alternative perspective into the lives of people many deem asexual.  In doing so, the film raises a few moral questions, particularly the existence of sex surrogates (and how they differ from prostitutes), and the emotional journey all parties embark on, planned or not.  With any other actors in the leading roles, the nuances of the journeys may not have been captured so wholeheartedly, but they were.

Helen Hunt gives one of her career-best performances as Cheryl Cohen-Greene.  She adds dimension, strength, and warmth to a character who, at times, feels shallow, frail, and cold.  There are many subtleties captured in her expressions and voice – subtleties including the faintest brow raises, or slightest cracks or breaks in her soft voice when she’s making a recording of her sessions with Mark.  Hunt is simply brilliant with her portrayal and delivers a multi-dimensional, real woman to the audience.

Hunt’s powerhouse performance compliments, and is complimented by, John Hawkes as Mark O’Brien.  Hawkes had a difficult task – to be physically limited to a horizontal position and restricted to looking only one direction – to execute compellingly.  He does it.  John Hawkes is magnificent, given that his entire performance derives from what he can do from the neck up.  Everything you see – every moment of sorrow, frustration, joy, insecurity – comes directly from his eyes and mouth.

With two Oscar-worthy leading performances and a great ensemble cast (including William H. Macy, Moon Bloodgood, and W. Earl Brown) The Sessions becomes a mesmerizing journey and testament to one brave man’s life and experience.  It’s a journey worth taking and one, at the end of the day, you’ll be proud you took.  Bravo.  The Sessions runs 95 minutes and is rated R for graphic nudity and frank dialogue.

Note:  The Sessions was released in the US on October 19 in four theaters, its national expansion, however, is not listed.  Check your local theater for upcoming showtimes.

Grade: A+



6 thoughts on “Hawkes and Hunt soar in “The Sessions”

  1. I agree that the performances were strong (Hawkes’ best performance I still think is from “Winter’s Bone,” though), but this should have been a two hour movie. So many things were glossed over and it didn’t seem to have a third act. It’s tough to go into detail without spoiling, but right around the time that felt like the second act break everything felt rushed as hell. There were things earlier that felt sort of glossed over as well, but the fact that this movie had almost no third act is what really hurt it.

    • I have, unfortunately, not yet seen “Winter’s Bone,” but it is on the near-future watchlist, along with “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” (so probably sometime this week). As for the mechanics of the story, I honestly didn’t mind a little glossing here and there. I think the main emphasis was spot-on, and that was on the sessions themselves, and the characters. Had this film gone longer, I think I could see a reverse argument being made about it being too long. Personally, I didn’t feel cheated by the story and thought it had just enough run time.

  2. Bobby I must disagree. Although the subject matter of this film is compelling, I think that by focusing too much on the “sessions” themselves we missed the most compelling parts of the story. The message of this movie seemed to be if you have sex your ability to relate to women on every level will change and suddenly your life will be fulfilled. But we didn’t really get a chance to see what these changes were, because the movie ended. But the biggest crime of all was the scene where Helen Hunt held up the mirror and said, “This is what your body looks like,” and they don’t even show it to the audience. I don’t think that was an artisitic decision at all. We looked at Helen Hunt’s naked body through the whole movie. However, god forbid we would be shown a man’s naked body, or a person’s body that had been ravaged by polio. I thought it was really insulting to the audience. I give this film a D, Helen Hunt’s middled aged body an impressed thumbs up, and William H. Macy’s slightly greasy full head of hair an A-.

    • I would disagree with your statement about the film’s message. I think it was a very interesting story of self-discovery, perseverance and hope, for both Mark and Cheryl. I disagree and agree to your nudity comment. While I do think the film pushed the envelop with a sex story about a physically disabled man, I too, found it one-sided that the female was shown nude, but not the male. That said, would seeing John Hawkes nude have added anymore to the movie than was already there? I don’t think so – I think the issue of male-female nudity is a larger issue than this film alone.

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