“The Sessions” Movie Review

     In what has to be one of the most daring films in quite a while, director Ben Lewin's "The Sessions" tells the true story of a disabled writer who lives most of his day in an iron lung and longs to lose his virginity at the age of 38. Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes) lives with the after effects of a childhood bout with Polio and is unable to move any part of his body, other than his head, and can only breath without the assistance of a machine for about three hours a day.  He is 100% dependent on two assistants who take care of him throughout the day and night.  From the beginning, we see Mark doesn't allow his handicap to get in his way, with early scenes indicating he attended Berkley and got around on a motorized gurney.  I say the film is daring, and perhaps a bit awkward, because the story chronicles what turns out to be five sessions between Mark and Cheryl (Helen Hunt), a professional sex surrogate. This entails numerous sex scenes between the two which play in a tasteful yet sometimes uncomfortable manner.

     Beneath the subject matter is a truly heartwarming story.  I mean, you really have to feel for this guy.  Though there are constant serious undertones, the dialogue between O'Brien and the various characters are played mostly for laughs.  If you can imagine meeting this guy in real life, you have to figure his intention would be to break the ice for you, so as to have a normal conversation with a regular guy.  Hawkes does a remarkable job getting that across throughout the film in what has to be one of the great performances of 2012.  Setting up the film's primary focus, O'Brien tells his priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy), "My penis speaks to me Father." Simply put, O'Brien is asking permission to take his therapist's advice and hire a sex surrogate in order to lose his virginity.  Father Brendan aptly replies "I think the Lord will give you a pass on this one.", putting the plot in motion.

     Returning to acting after years away, Helen Hunt certainly chose a challenging role.  One which requires her to spend a large portion of her screen time completely nude.  When she is introduced, we learn she is also a therapist and ensures O'Brien she is not a prostitute.  Though it's difficult to describe here, you never really view Cheryl in that way.  Her methods are clearly well thought out and she exhibits a calming bed side manner as she guides O'Brien through his very first sexual experiences.  Hunt's performance stands out because she seems to put the audience at ease in much the same way she does O'Brien on screen.  Because of the chemistry developed between Hunt and Hawkes, we soon lose sight of what we are seeing visually and realize the budding relationship developing before our eyes. What shines through is the very real display of the human spirit by both characters, where O'Brien's disease takes a back seat and the ultimate goal of these sessions becomes clear.

   Lewin's screenplay is based on an article written by O'Brien before his death which detailed his experiences with Cheryl and what he gained from it.  The story takes place in San Francisco in 1988, so it's not surprising to see the characters populating the film showing so much acceptance for the relationship between Mark and Cheryl, in other words this isn't exactly a film about conservative people.  With the two leads in top form, the supporting cast also shines when given their moments. Vera, played by Moon Bloodgood, seems to be the fabric that holds everything together.  She takes her job seriously and clearly has Mark's interests at heart.  Macy's Father Brendan has a priceless look on his face each time Mark uses confession to give him every juicy detail of his sessions with Cheryl.  It becomes clear Mark was lucky to be surrounded by so many caring people during his life and the supporting players in the film are excellent indications of that. 

     "The Sessions" was a darling on the festival circuit earlier this year and I would expect it to make some noise come awards season.  At a minimum, Hawkes will likely get numerous nods for Best Actor and Hunt should garner her share of Supporting Actress recognition.  Academy voters love this kind of film and for good reason.  "The Sessions" makes you think differently about people you might otherwise judge based on perception alone and gives new incite as to what should be deemed normal in society. GRADE: B+