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.