The Sessions

Cast:
John Hawkes as Mark
Helen Hunt as Cheryl
William H. Macy as Father Brendan
Moon Bloodgood as Vera
Annika Marks as Amanda
Adam Arkin as Josh
Rhea Perlman as Mikvah Lady
W. Earl Brown as Rod
Robin Weigert as Susan
Blake Lindsley as Dr. Laura White
Ming Lo as Clerk
Rusty Schwimmer as Joan
Jennifer Kumiyama as Carmen
Tobias Forrest as Greg
Jarrod Bailey as Tony

Directed by Ben Lewin

Story:
In 1988, 38-year-old polio-stricken Bay Area poet Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) decided that it was time for him to experience physical love. The problem was that his ailment left him practically paralyzed from the neck down even though he still had feeling everywhere on his body. He calls upon a sex surrogate named Cheryl (Helen Hunt) to help him discover his sexuality.

Analysis
“The Sessions” is one of those movies that you hear the concept for and you immediately wonder, “Why on earth would I be interested in seeing this?” Even having seen Australian filmmaker Ben Lewin’s film twice, enjoying it more each time, I can totally understand that mentality. After all, who wants to see a movie about a poet who can barely move except enough to potentially have sex? Yeah, it’s not exactly “The Avengers.” Instead, Lewin follows in the footsteps (so to speak) of James Sheridan’s “My Left Foot” and “The Sea Inside” to show one man’s struggle to overcome his condition to discover the simple pleasures of sex.

We’re introduced to Mark O’Brien through news footage of the real man who died in the late ’90s before we go back in time to see him having a sponge bath by a burly nurse who is disgusted by his arousal. His next nurse is a younger co-ed who Mark starts to develop feelings towards, except that his condition and the fact he’s never been with a woman leaves him confused. A devout Irish Catholic, Mark turns to a Catholic priest, played by William H. Macy, to find out whether his decision to go see a sex surrogate to help with his problem might be considered a sin and is surprised to receive the priest’s blessing. He soon learns that Cheryl, a middle-aged sex therapist played by Helen Hunt, is ready for the challenge of getting Mark comfortable with his own body and his sexuality.

While Mark O’Brien’s quest is similar to that of Steve Carell’s Andy in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” it never goes for those sorts of laughs because “The Sessions” is a drama at its core, but one with a refreshing light-heartedness due to Mark’s witty self-deprecating sense of humor. Much of why the dialogue-heavy film works so well is due to the tightly-written screenplay by Lewin based on O’Brien’s article about his time with a sex surrogate. It successfully stirs bits of Mark’s actual poetry into the narrative and avoids melodrama by neither sentimentalizing nor sensationalizing Mark’s condition and his growing attachment to his sex surrogate.

Needless to say, the other reason it works so well is because it’s driven by an unforgettable performance by John Hawkes who has to be funny and charming and emotional often using only his voice. It’s quite a departure from his other high-profile roles, but anyone who has seen Jessica Yu’s doc “Breathing Lessons” will be impressed with his transformation.

Even so, it’s often Helen Hunt who has to do most of the emotional heavy lifting, because she’s so affected by Mark’s words and feelings and becomes fairly attached to him even though the job calls for her to remain detached. We should give fair warning that you see a lot of Helen Hunt in the movie, full frontal all the way nude, and while that isn’t necessarily a bad thing–Hunt is still quite attractive–it’s something that might be a bit off-putting. Then again, if you’re even remotely prudish, then this won’t be the movie for you since much of the dialogue involves discussing sex in an honest and graphic fashion.

Despite the subdued nature of the storytelling, Lewin finds a way of keeping us invested in the story, cutting between the actual therapy sessions to Mark giving updates to his hilariously mortified priest, a very runny turn by Macy that requires a lot of listening and reacting to what Mark tells him. It also shows Cheryl dictating her notes about Mark’s progress in their sessions, which allows us to get a better look at her side of their relationship and why she does its. Moon Bloodgood plays a surprisingly subdued but important role as one of Mark’s two assistants, who has some funny scenes with the motel manager as they’re waiting for Mark’s session to end.

The Bottom Line:
Tender, heartfelt and romantic, “The Sessions” is a beautifully touching true story that never feels like the typical biopic since it finds a way of instilling humor and charm into a delicate and often tragic situation.

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