|Helen Hunt (left) and John Hawkes (right) in The Sessions|
Fox Searchlight Pictures
2012, 95 minutes
Rated R for strong sexuality including graphic nudity and frank dialogue
Writer/director Ben Lewin's The Sessions is a really wonderful film that works on so many levels. It won the US Dramatic Audience Award and a Special Jury Prize for Ensemble Acting at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and follows the true story of Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes in an outstanding performance) who, at 38 years old, is still a virgin due to the fact that he can only move his head because of a case of polio in childhood. He spends much of his days in an iron lung and one day, decides that he wants to have sex. So, through the guidance of his priest (William H. Macy) and the help of a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt), he loses his virginity.
The lead performances (as well as supporting) in The Sessions are the stand-out aspect. They are perfect. John Hawkes, an incredibly talented actor best known for his Oscar-nominated role in Winter's Bone, plays O'Brien with a quick wit and incredible sensitivity. Hawkes, known for having a very deep voice, adopts a higher one for this role. He is also completely convincing as a polio survivor. During the film, I completely forgot that I was watching an actor. This will absolutely get him his second Oscar nomination.
Helent Hunt is great opposite Hawkes as the sex surrogate, Cheryl Cohen-Greene. She gives an incredibly beautiful performance. Hunt is completely believable in this role as she seems to really care for Hawkes' Mark's plight. She is dedicated to helping him tackle his physical obstacles and in addition, his mental obstacles. I really loved watching Hunt. She lit up the screen every time that she was on and her chemistry with Hawkes was impressive. The sessions that they spent together seemed like real sex sessions, not awkwardly staged scenes that didn't work. And lastly, the emotions that Hunt expressed as Cheryl always seemed genuine. She, like Hawkes, should, and will, be recognized by the Oscars this year.
Ben Lewin's script is the other key component to this film as it is poignant and honest. Lewin smartly decided to make this film a comedy. Polio, iron lungs, and virginity are not my ideas of funny, but Lewin manages to make this portrayal of O'Brien comical and sensitive. O'Brien's lines and conversations with Cheryl are so painfully realistic (and sometimes awkward) that I couldn't help but laugh. Another really smart thing that Lewin did was that he developed Hunt's character and really focused on her life at home and away from the sessions. He shows that she has a family and a husband. Her husband knows about what she does, but it never seems to affect him. By developing both Mark and Cheryl, Lewin crafted characters who I really cared for. I wanted to know the characters in real life and spend time with them.
Another strength of the script is that Lewin treats sex frankly and honestly. He doesn't shy away from graphic descriptions and images, but at the same time, he makes everything tasteful. Never is this film exploitative which is a really impressive feat given the subject matter. This script a great chance of being nominated for an Oscar.
Overall, The Sessions is an excellent film. It has amazing performances, a great script and tight direction, a fast pace, a sense of humor, and a big heart. It shows how one man is able to get over an extreme disability to live life and do what he wants which is really valuable to see.