Review: The Sessions
PLOT: Mark O'Brien (John Hawke) is a thirty-eight year old writer-poet who, due to polio, is essentially paralyzed from the neck down, and spends most of his time in an iron lung. Due to his disability, he's a virgin, but while writing an article on the sex lives of disabled people, he's given the number of a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt) who- in six sessions, will make it possible for Mark to truly experience physical intimacy.
REVIEW: I originally saw THE SESSIONS back in January at the Sundance Film Festival, where it was called THE SURROGATE (a better title)- but for some reason I never got around to reviewing it. Before finally writing my long-overdue review, I decided to give myself a SESSIONS refresher by checking out a local screening, and I'm glad I did. THE SESSIONS is one of those films that always struck me as good, but in the festival setting it didn't strike as major a chord as it might have otherwise. Now- watching it on it's own, and not smack dab in the middle of dozens of other screenings, it made more of an impression. Certainly THE SESSIONS has the potential to be a real sleeper hit- if people give it a chance.
Apparently based on a true story, THE SESSIONS is really a showcase for John Hawkes- a superb character actor who far too rarely gets the chance to play a lead role. That's remedied with his flawless turn as the paralyzed O'Brien, who- despite his handicap, lives life as his own man and refuses to demur to his editors, his doctors or his physical caretakers. As the film opens, we see O'Brien get rid of a caretaker who starts to take him for granted, and it's nice to see a movie where the handicapped hero asserts himself, and refuses to let himself be seen as a victim.
Nevertheless, O'Brien, as played by Hawkes is a sweet-natured man who trembles at the idea of finally losing his virginity, and quickly finds himself attached to the at first all-business surrogate. As played by Hunt, her character, Cheryl- bristles at the notion that she could be conceived as a prostitute- despite taking money for sex. To her, this is therapy, and to prevent clients from getting attached, she caps the sessions at six. Still, she can't help but be touched by the sensitive O'Brien. Hunt's pretty fearless here, spending the majority of her screen-time completely naked- a brave choice for a middle-aged woman (although her body looks great). Her chemistry with Hawkes in undeniably great, and their relationship never goes the predictable route- with her being portrayed as a perfectly happy family woman, who nevertheless blooms under the gaze of her sensitive client. The love scenes are sensitively handled, and Hawkes physical performance- which involves constricting his body movement to only the neck and up, is incredible.
In addition to Hawkes and Hunt, William H. Macy gets a gem of a role as O'Brien's priest- himself a good natured, down-to-earth fellow. Rather than condemn him for trying to get pre-marital sex (O'Brien is portrayed as a devout Catholic), Macy always encourages him. Certainly, Macy is probably the most lovable on-screen priest since Bing Crosby, even popping by Mark's house to offer him a beer and a chat when need be (and his SHAMELESS-style shag mullet is exquisite).
Writer-director Ben Lewin wisely keeps THE SESSIONS moving at a fairly quick pace, with the 99 minute theatrical cut seeming even leaner than the version I saw at Sundance (although I can't really say if anything's been cut). A veteran director (having director his share of indies, in addition to plenty of TV)- Lewin seems to realize that this is all about the performances, and he doesn't get in their way with much in the way of stylistic flourishes. Sometimes that's the right approach, which certainly seems to be the case here.
While it's obviously a bit of a hard sell, hopefully people will give it a shot as Hawkes deserves an Oscar nomination, as do Hunt and Macy for supporting. While it's probably not as heavy as some of the other big awards contenders that are going to be coming out over the next few months, it's an exceedingly poignant and worthwhile film. If it happens to come to your town- I urge you to check it out.
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