Originally entitled The Surrogate when it broke out at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, The Sessions tells the true story of journalist and poet Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes). Mark has polio, and has been confined to a bed and iron lung since he was six. Now in his late 30’s, Mark has never experienced love or sexual intimacy. After being contacted to write an article about sexual relations for the disabled, Mark decides he wants to lose his virginity. After getting the blessing of Father Brennan (William H. Macy), he hires Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt) to assist him.
Frequently jumping at will between being a comedy and a drama, The Sessions is one of the few genuinely great films I saw at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. I saw it early on, and it stayed with me for almost the entirety of the festival. Taking a true story and turning it into something so deeply affecting is never easy, but writer/director Ben Lewin and his fantastic cast have truly crafted something truly special and wonderful.
What is immediately startling about The Sessions is how bold it is. The entire movie is about sex and the desire of one man to lose his virginity, and it is handled with such an emotional maturity that I almost felt guilty for laughing at all of the one-liners and private quips the characters deliver. Every sex scene feels honest, frank and deeply intimate no matter how graphic it is.
The discussions about sex are just as involving, if not even more so. And unlike most American films, there is almost nothing left to hide during some of these scenes. I was genuinely surprised at how much of Hunt we get to see, but just as much surprised at how personal and non-sexualized the majority of these scenes were. Lewin, himself a polio survivor, shows great restraint in the many scenes involving sex and does a fantastic job really bringing an authenticity and stunning realism to both Mark’s plight and the role of the sex surrogate.
I cannot think of nearly enough words to describe how amazing Hawkes’ performance as Mark O’Brien is. Always a bit player, it was refreshing to see him take the reins and command the screen as the lead. He spends a good chunk of the film bedridden, only able to move his face and mouth. And the rest of the film he is confined to an iron lung. It does not leave him much to work with, but Hawkes delivers in every scene, making it excruciatingly difficult to look away.
He is very in tune with the character, and looks even more staggeringly natural with each new scene. Listening to him recite Mark’s poetry leads to some of the most devastating portions of the movie, but he never wavers; he just becomes more intent and focused. The emotional heft and hilarity rely on his delivery, and he nails every scene with ease. And considering he may have destroyed his own back and organs striving for realism (he lay on a piece of foam in order for his spine to appear curved), that look of ease is downright frightening.
Hunt, rarely seen since the late 1990’s, is an inspired choice of casting for the sex surrogate Cheryl. She is excellent in the role, bringing an aura of authenticity and legitimacy to the role. Her scenes get ridiculously emotional both with and without Hawkes, but she handles it just as great as he does. Her chemistry with him is simply outstanding, to the point where you genuinely forget you are watching actors and instead think you are watching the real thing. That may sound creepy, but the film’s innocence ensures you will not feel that way at all watching it. I think her backstory, and subplot involving her husband Josh (Adam Arkin) is the film’s only real stumbling point – Hunt is deeply invested in making all of it work, but the film does not really care about her character’s story outside of its involvement with Mark. Thankfully these scenes lead to some of the most stirring moments in the entire film, but they still feel weak as a whole.
Macy has the unfortunate task of playing third wheel to Hawkes and Hunt, but he does a terrific job anyway. His priest Father Brendan is on the outside, looking in, and our real life line as an audience into Mark’s life. Much like the film itself, Macy is very understated and restrained throughout. He spends the major part of the film offering advice to Mark, but also asking many of the questions the audience may have themselves.
In one respect, he is basically a subtle plot device. But Macy’s performance is better than that, and he gives the character an unseen amount of depth that makes you genuinely care about him and what he has to say. I found myself deeply involved in all of the conversations between Hawkes and Macy, and found that even at their most ridiculous, they were still sweet and deeply moving.
For all of the great things I have to say, I believe the highest praise The Sessions will ever get came during the film’s Q&A. Lewin was on-stage, and was personally thanked by both a sex surrogate and a family member of a man struggling with polio, for the film’s honesty and maturity. The film itself and these comments lead to multiple standing ovations.
The Sessions magnificently balances hilarity with emotional potency, and will leave you laughing almost as much as you will be crying. This is a very one-of-a-kind, genuinely great film and even better story. Do not be surprised if this is the dark horse candidate come Oscar season.
The Sessions is startlingly bold and just as emotionally mature, with a wonderful story and even better performances.