The Sessions

© 2012 Ray Wong

The Sessions is a small, independent comedy about a seemingly insignificant character named Mark. While the movie is marketed as a comedy centering on sex, the result is something totally unexpected.

Mark O'Brian (John Hawkes) was struck with Polio when he was six. Since then, he has survived the disease and lived to 38, but he is mostly confined in his bed, a gurney or inside an iron lung that helps him breathe. Mark is a writer, too, and he does it mostly by typing with his mouth (using the eraser tip of a long pencil). While doing an writing assignment on sex and the disables, Mark decides that it's time for him to experience one thing that he's resigned to never experience: losing his virginity to a woman.

With the blessing of his understanding priest Fr. Brendan (William H. Macy), soon Mark is connected to a sex surrogate named Cheryl (Helen Hunt). The rules are clear: there will only be six sessions, and Cheryl is not a prostitute. Mark's condition proves to be more severe than Cheryl has anticipated -- even the less intimate acts such as fondling or touching can be painful and, worse, frightening to Mark. So Cheryl has to exert a lot of patience and tender, loving care while coaching Mark on one of life's most basic needs.

The plot doesn't stop there, but I will leave it to you to discover. The premise, however, is hilarious and the actors deliver with gusto. John Hawkes (Winter's Bones) transfers himself physically and mentally to portray a severely handicapped man who has been bed-ridden most of his life. And yet Mark is far from being self-loathing. Instead, Mark is witty, gentle, loving, and full of grand ideas and curiosity. Hawkes does a terrific job bring this character to life, even though he hardly moves a muscle except his face.

Helen Hunt (Then She Found Me) also turns in a fantastic performance as the sex surrogate. It is not an easy role to play, which calls for confidence and strong sense of self and care for other people. Hunt successfully plays a woman who starts to blur the line between her professional (and hidden) life and her private family life. Hawkes and Hunt have great chemistry together and that makes their interactions and relationship more hilarious and heart-felt.

The small supporting cast is remarkable as well. William H. Macy (The Lincoln Lawyer) helps inject a healthy dose of humor as Father Brendan, who has to listen to Mark's sexual encounters and condone, basically, prostitute for the good of his fellow man. Moon Bloodgood (Conception) sheds her gorgeous appearance to play Mark's humble assistant, and her subtle performance is wonderful. Adam Arkin (Summer Eleven) plays Cheryl's supportive but jealous husband with great humility. In fact, the whole cast displays such great humility and wit that we can't help but fall in love with these characters -- all of them. They are all so human, and yet so special.

Written and directed by Ben Lewin (Touch by an Angel) who is a Polio survivor himself, the screenplay is based on real-life hero Mark O'Brian's experience, which he described in one of his writings. After almost 10 years out of the public life, Lewin has reemerged with this greatly personal, intimate story. The subject matter is sensitive, and in the wrong hands, it could have turned out to be a farce. But Lewin has put a lot of care into developing the characters and plot that what appears to be an easy laugh or two turns out to be amazingly sensitive and poignant. I was blown away by how touching the story and relationships between these character became.

Of course, there are still laughs. It is an interesting, embarrassing and funny matter, and Lewin doesn't shy away from the awkward details, down to the clinical descriptions and physical acts of sex. It makes me uncomfortable watching Hunt and Hawkes getting it on, and I can only imagine how difficult it is for the actors. Remarkably what comes across on the screen is something genuine, affecting, and beautifully acted and rendered.

Like I said, I didn't expect to go into a comedy and find myself sobbing by the third act. But that's what I did. In a matter of 90 minutes, I have fallen in love with these characters and grown a tremendous respect for Mark O'Brian (even though all he wanted to do was have sex -- well, was that all?) and the actors who play Mark, Cheryl, Vera and Josh… (and it was great listening to Hawkes, Hunt and Macy talk about their experiences with the film after the screening). Did the movie change my life? Hardly. But it has affected me deeply nonetheless, and I think come this Award season, it and everyone involved will be rewarded.

Stars: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy, Moon Bloodgood, Annika Marks, Adam Arkin
Director: Ben Lewin
Writer: Ben Lewin (based on article by Mark O'Brian)
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
MPAA Rating:  R for strong sexuality, nudity and frank language
Running Time: 95 minutes 


Script - 8
Performance - 10
Direction - 8
Cinematography - 7
Music/Sound - 8
Editing - 7
Production - 8

Total - 8.3 out of 10.0 

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