Winter 2013 Features series
Sunday, January 13, 2013 at 4:00pm
Sunday, January 13, 2013 at 7:00pm
Directed by Ben Lewin
Screenplay by Ben Lewin
Starring William H. Macy, Helen Hunt, and John Hawkes
Rated 18A ·
Director Ben Lewin’s based-on-fact comedy-drama is about childhood polio survivor Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes, Winter’s Bone), now in his thirties who hires a professional sex surrogate to help him lose his virginity. A warm, heartfelt study in generosity and desire, it is also a rare film that acknowledges the erotic lives of people with disabilities.
His body contorted by polio, Mark O’Brien spends most of his hours confined to an iron lung. His severe physical limitations have not prevented him, however, from becoming a poet and journalist — he learned to write by tapping keys with a stick held in his mouth — nor have they kept him from longing for one of life’s most treasured experiences: sexual fulfillment. O’Brien is a religious man, and the first person that he confides in regarding his erotic needs is his priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy, Magnolia, Fargo). Neither condemning nor condescending, Brendan assures O’Brien that God will look the other way.
O’Brien resolutely setting out to find a professional sex surrogate, has the remarkable good fortune to find Cheryl (Helen Hunt, As Good as It Gets), an articulate, mature and patient woman who gently coaches him in his arduous struggle toward greater bodily awareness. With time, they will negotiate the possibility of actual intercourse. Along the way, each discovers hidden resources within themselves, and more common ground than either would have expected.
A film like The Sessions relies on strong performances, and it is hard to imagine a finer cast than that assembled by Lewin. Hawkes brings tremendous expressiveness to O’Brien, despite being unable to use most of his body. Macy is wonderfully droll as the permissive priest and Hunt is radiant, compassionate and thoroughly no-nonsense. One of the year’s most authentic and unlikely feel-good movies, The Sessions reminds us what can be achieved when we strive to overcome our preconceptions.
“What Hollywood hack makes this stuff up? As it turns out, no one. The Sessions, based on O’Brien’s experiences while living in Berkeley in 1988, is the stuff of real life. If you’re thinking, ‘How depressing,’ snap out of it. Writer-director Ben Lewin, drawing on O’Brien’s essay ‘On Seeing a Sex Surrogate’ (published in 1990), has crafted an exhilarating gift of a movie that’s funny, touching and vital. And Hawkes does the kind of acting that awards were invented for. Having learned to twist his body, use a mouth stick to dial a phone and type, and suggest the sheer effort it took for O’Brien to simply breathe, Hawkes and his technical virtuosity are astounding. But it’s how Hawkes uses his voice and expressive eyes to reveal the inner Mark that makes his performance a triumph.
Lewin, who also suffered some of the debilitating effects of polio as a child, knows this material from the inside. The sex scenes with O’Brien and surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene are handled with rare delicacy and blunt, bubbling humour. ‘Nice shirt,’ Cheryl tells the painfully vulnerable Mark, as he lies in bed awaiting her first touch. Hunt plays the role full-out, no nonsense about her nudity or the intricacies of a job she must reconcile with being a wife and mother. Hunt is spectacular in every way, finding just the right balance between tough and tender. William H. Macy also scores mightily as Father Brendan, the priest who helps O’Brien reconcile sex surrogacy with devout Catholicism in ways you won’t see coming. OK, no more spoilers about The Sessions. Just see it. This movie will take a piece out of you.” (Peter Travers, Rolling Stone)