Review: The Sessions

The Sessions Director Ben Lewin’s retrospective sexual journey of a semi-paralyzed man and the woman he loves is a simple yet satisfying film. The Sessions retells the true story of poet, Mark O’Brien, who hires a sexual surrogate to help him experience sex for the first time. The basic idea of the movie is fascinating in its own right, but the care to which Lewin constructs character interactions makes the story truly memorable.

The film starts us off with an introduction to Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), as a poet who suffers from polio. The disease leaves O’Brien with the inability to move his body. While he can still feel, his muscles don’t function. He sleeps helplessly in an iron lung, and lives out much of his life with the help of assistants. The level of comedic element of O’Brien is comforting to the audience in awkward and sometimes truly tragic moments. One such moment is Mark’s moment of falling in love with his house assistant Amanda (Annika Marks). The interaction between the two is tragic, funny at times, and truly heartfelt. When Mark decides that he doesn’t want to be a virgin anymore at the ripe old age of 38 we begin to get the real crux of who he is and what he wants. He confides in a Catholic priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy) that he wants to pursue a sexual relationship outside of marriage. Father Brendan assuredly says, “I think God will give you a pass on this.” Mark’s deeply religious views are played very tongue and cheek here with his interactions with Brendan. Juxtaposing between what is morally right and what is humanely needed is an interesting play for director Ben Lewin. Something that could be seen as cliche is actually handled with relative care and consideration to breathe new life into it. So with Father Brendan’s permission Mark is off to the races to nervously meet his sexual surrogate Cheryl Greene (Helen Hunt).

When Mark and Cheryl meet there is such an overwhelming sense of fear and awkwardness that you cannot help but get pulled in. You feel for Mark’s ignorance and you are baffled by Cheryl’s role. As a sexual surrogate, Cheryl has multiple sessions with Mark to get him to a specified level of sexual experience. However, in her personal life she is married with a child and has her own set of personal issues that she must overcome. Seemingly so strong in her ability to guide someone, Cheryl, in a lot of ways is a just as wayward, ignorant, and afraid as the patients she deals with. For that reason, Cheryl feels so genuine and flushed out as a character. So often in film, character development is the last thing that gets any attention, however in The Sessions its the number one motivation. Mark and Cheryl develop an interesting and complex relationship as they progress through the six sessions. With each session we watch the two intertwine further, however not just physically.

The performances were incredibly strong all around with John Hawkes and Helen Hunt leading the pack with stellar efforts. William H. Macy’s portrayal as a beer drinking and cigarette smoking priest, confidant, and most importantly friend to Mark O’Brien was highly entertaining. The main actors were buoyed well by excellent supporting performances by Annika Marks and Moon Bloodgood, both playing O’Brien’s assistants. Director Ben Lewin was able to inspire good actors to give great performances, while simultaneously not alienating the audience from the subject matter, which was highly appreciated. The Sessions is a sleeper hit for 2012 and as such will not get a lot of publicity. Do yourself a favor and see this film if for nothing else but Hawkes and Hunt’s heartfelt performances.

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