(This review was originally published on October 26, 2012 at Reel Film News)
“The Sessions” is a thoughtful, emotionally intricate film that celebrates the strength of the human intellect and separates, quite distinctly and with an organic temperament, the differences between intimacy, sexuality and love. The story is based on the article ‘On Seeking a Sex Surrogate’ by Mark O’Brien, a journalist and poet who spent the majority of his life dictating his writings from within the confines of an iron lung because of polio; at the age of 38, he sought sexual liberation from his physically limiting circumstances with a sex surrogate (played in the film by a Helen Hunt that I quite literally have never seen before). O’Brien was also featured in an Academy Award winning documentary called “Breathing Lessons” in 1997, two years before his death.
The film is charming, moving, and surprisingly uplifting; it’s also awkward and frustrating, but purposefully so, and never demands our sympathy. Director Ben Lewin, himself a polio sufferer, incorporates plenty of levity into the film. I can’t imagine more of an intellectual strain than bestowed upon O’Brien, a brilliant man whose body was devastated at a young age, but whose words refused to concede to his pain. It’s a role that John Hawkes portrays with exhaustive dedication that is disguised with discipline and finesse, and is almost always dashed with a wise sense of humor. Hunt’s part as Cheryl, the surrogate, is what I’d consider the most demanding role of her career. Though she’s nude for a large portion of the time, the film emphasizes the bizarre innocence of the situation, the dialogue, and their unusual dynamic over its explicit sexual nature.
At the beginning of the film, Mark is being carted around on a gurney, his only means of transportation (after his self-propelled stretcher is deemed too dangerous for him). After firing various nurse aids, he settles on Vera, played by a frumpy, attitude-heavy Moon Bloodgood. Hawkes, who was a scary, maniacal marvel in both “Winter’s Bone” and “Martha Marcy May Marlene”, portrays a man who is deeply religious, paralyzed from the neck down, but also waylaid in his conscience. The conflict, which is essentially his desire to have sex for the first time and not being married, is presented with a genuine but comic concern to his priest, played by William H. Macy, who reluctantly gives Mark his blessing. “I have a feeling he’d give you a pass on this one,” he says. Amen, brother.
O’Brien is only able to communicate with his face. Hawkes, an expert in conveying pain, vulnerability, faith and intelligence almost simultaneously, manages to do the same, and with surprisingly lighthearted results. It’s his most challenging role to date, at least in my opinion, and Lewin, who also wrote the screenplay, knows exactly how to capture that. This is not a film about misery and suffering, but about perseverance.