The Sessions review

A difficult topic is sensitively handled by a fabulous cast, including Helen Hunt and William H Macy. Here's Ron's review of The Sessions...

At 38 years old, Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) has become an accomplished poet, a working journalist, and a college graduate despite one major problem. At six years old, Mark O’Brien caught polio and has spent most of his life in an iron lung. That’s a difficult challenge for anyone, but it gives Mark a unique perspective on the life of the disabled.

For all he’s accomplished, there’s one thing Mark has never done: had sex. He has all the emotions, feelings, and sensations of the able-bodied, but he simply cannot control his muscles in any voluntary sense. He reveals his problem to his priest, Father Brendan (William H Macy), and eventually, Mark talks to some folks and discovers a solution to his problem. He’s going to hire a sex surrogate.

It’s not like a prostitute, in the sense that you can’t be a repeat customer, and their mission is one as educational as it is fornicational. He eventually finds his way to a therapist who guides him to Cheryl (Helen Hunt), a professional who is equipped to give Mark the experiences he craves—and the confidence that comes with them.

The Sessions is one of the most touching and heartfelt movies I’ve seen all year. It’s truly a testament to the writing and directing of Ben Lewin, and the acting of the tremendous ensemble cast. Without the skill of John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, and William H Macy, this film wouldn’t work. Without Ben Lewin’s personal experiences as a disabled polio survivor, I don’t think the film would have worked. Without the real Mark O’Brien’s poetry and the Academy Award-winning short documentary Breathing Lessons: The Life And Work Of Mark O’Brien by Jessica Yu, I also don’t think this film would have come together as well as it has.

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This is an incredible feature film, starting with John Hawkes. I have no doubt that Hawkes, already known for his roles in tough fare like Winter’s Bone, will get some serious Oscar attention. Acting as a disabled character without having an actual disability has to be difficult, but when you’re confined to a gurney or in an iron lung as Hawkes is throughout the film, the difficulty level rises. He does so much good with his facial expressions and voice. It’s subtle, effective, and makes Hawke’s wry delivery of the jokes O’Brien tells that much more effective. It helps a lot to have William H Macy to play against, and the two work great together, as Macy’s hangdog priest really drives the movie along.

Full credit goes to Helen Hunt as well, as she takes on a very risky role (with a risky amount of nudity) for someone her age. I can’t imagine a harder job for someone to have, either on screen or off screen, but she handles her work beautifully and brings a real warmth and kind-hearted sadness to her role. She has great chemistry with Hawkes (as does Moon Bloodgood as O’Brien’s assistant Vera), and their transition from awkward first encounter—cold and almost clinical—to a close relationship is wonderful to behold. This movie is populated with characters that are very easy to love, from Mark himself to Cheryl, Father Brendan, and even Vera, Rod (W Earl Brown), and Amanda (Annika Marks). 

Like life, The Sessions covers a lot of territory. Primarily a movie about love and sex, The Sessions also touches on friendship, companionship, and all manner of human issues. Like relationships tend to be, The Sessions is by turns funny, sweet, and painful. It’s a movie that takes place entirely in bed, but it never fails to be entertaining or thoughtful.

The Sessions goes on general release on the 18th January 2013 in the UK.

US Correspondent Ron Hogan recommends everyone read Mark O’Brien’s beautiful article “On Seeing A Sex Surrogate.” Find more by Ron daily at Shaktronics and PopFi.

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4 out of 5