After seeing the film The Sessions I can totally understand how it won the Audience Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival. It is a tender and touching film about compassion, humanity and the longing need for physical affection and intimacy.
Based on journalist and poet Mark O'Brien's essay entitled "On Seeing a Sex Surrogate," the film recounts how at age 38, O'Brien hired a sex surrogate to help him lose his virginity. As a child O'Brien (played brilliantly by John Hawkes) contracted polio, leaving him severely disabled and confined to an iron lung in order to help him breathe. He is a funny, charming and intelligent man, and all he longs for is the chance to be loved by a woman and experience physical intimacy before he dies. He falls in love too easily because he meets so few women outside of his caretakers, and when he professes his love and affection for a pretty young helper named Amanda, she rejects him due to the physical limitations such a relationship would have.
Mark decides that he is about to reach his "use-by date" and he makes the bold move to hire a sex surrogate named Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt). Mark is a deeply religious man however, so before he hires her he consults with a priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy), whose discomfort with O'Brien's condition is apparent at first but he manages to get past it and give his blessing to the normally sinful act of sex outside of marriage for Mark's sake. Some of the films most humourous moments occur when Mark returns to the priest with regular updates on the process, complete with graphic details of his sessions with Cheryl. Macy does a wonderful job showing his reactions as he becomes more and more fascinated by Mark's exploits and he even gets wrapped up in what becomes an almost-romantic tale.
And this is the heart of the picture. The sessions between Cheryl and Mark are fascinating because they seem so genuine and real. Helen Hunt does a superb job playing Cheryl as a compassionate woman who truly wants to help Mark become a man. She is definitely not shy about stripping for the camera either as she appears fully nude throughout many of the scenes of these sessions. The beautiful thing is though that there is nothing gratuitous about any of the sex or nudity in the film. It is most certainly frank, but it is handled in such a way that showcases the awkward nature of such a scenario. She is wonderful in how she introduces body awareness to Mark and she is the definition of patience and nurturing towards him. The delicacy with which she performs her job is inspiring and one can see how Mark truly starts to develop feelings for this woman.
Director Ben Lewin, a polio survivor himself, is clearly connected to this story and it shines through in how tastefully he handles the material. Everything is done so naturally and nothing ever feels contrived. This is a joyous and uplifting movie for mature individuals.
I truly hope that the Academy Awards voters are paying attention to this film because John Hawkes definitely deserves to be nominated for his work here. He is tremendous in a role that required him to be lying down and physically twisted for the duration of the film. He possesses so much charm and wit while at the same time dealing with trepidation and fear about the new experience he is about to embark on. You can't help but feel for him and admire his courage and resolve.
The Sessions is a real gem of a picture that will make you laugh, smile and cry. It is a wonderfully realized character drama about the nature of sex and intimacy and it is most certainly for mature audiences only. I thought it was an excellent little film filled with stellar performances and plenty of heart and charm.
Seek this one out folks, it's well worth it.
I give The Sessions a 9 out of 10.
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