Whenever you see a movie that is called “Festival Hit of the Year” on the poster, you know that you’re in for a unique, often enjoyable experience. In the case of Ben Lewin’s The Sessions, that is what the audience will get in spades.
The Sessions is the real life story of Mark O’Brien, played in this film brilliantly by John Hawkes, a polio-stricken man who has been living with the disease since the age of six. However, despite the debilitating nature of his affliction, which have restricted the use of his muscles to just his neck and jaw, he is able to graduate from UC Berkley’s graduate program and become an acclaimed writer and poet. After reaching the age of 38, he realizes that he wants to be intimate with someone before he dies. This leads him to acquire the services of a sexual surrogate; someone who will be intimate with him so that he can be more in touch with his body and therefore more intimate with a future partner. He employs the services of Cheryl, played by Helen Hunt and they develop a relationship beyond their already somewhat complicated professional one.
The acting in this movie is at a level that is so rare among anything that has come out of Hollywood in recent memory. John Hawkes does an amazing job of accurately yet respectfully portraying the physically crippled Mark O’Brien. Helen Hunt, who spends a majority of the film wearing little more than an awkward smile, appears remarkably comfortable as the sexual surrogate bringing Mark to his own sexual awareness. His attendee Vera, played by Moon Bloodgood, is both a warm blooded yet slightly aloof character who is both realistic and supportive. However, the show is almost completely stolen by Father Brendan played by William H Macy. Not only does he have the role of priest and confidant for O’Brien, but he plays the audience character. His reactions are normal based on each of the respective situation, and regardless, he is nothing but a good friend to Mark.
The story constantly teeters on the brink of being offensive. Considering the subject matter is a man who is immobile from the neck down attempting to achieve sexual orgasm and exploration, there is a lot of opportunity to be just that. However, not only does this film avoid ostracizing and offending its audience, it is able to maintain a great sense of humor and a strong sense of camaraderie amongst its actors. The only true issue that this film suffers from is very awkward pacing. Scenes tend to jump from forward in time abruptly only to have a recap of what was just witnessed, including the parts that were missed.
Although the director seems to be going for some kind of a recap of the events to give a more realistic interpretation, it just leaves the audience feeling jarred from all of the constant jumps. The ending of the film is a definite weak point as well. It goes from a strong, cathartic development for the character to a monologue overlaying the scene to the eulogy of the main character in a seamless and jarring conclusion that seems to come excessively fast. Granted, the story is of Mark seeing a sex therapist, and since that portion of his story has reached its conclusion, it’s only natural that the movie end as well. Regardless, it felt as though we didn’t get a completed version of his story.
Film of the year is a title that is given out far too often to underserving films because of the overly political nature of the Hollywood machine. In the case of The Sessions, however, it is justly deserved. The characters are rich, fully explored and sympathetic. The story is poignant, engaging and, most importantly, entertaining. The writing and the humor is both intelligent while still sensitive to any audience. Save from an unusual pacing, which can simultaneously afford for some unique comedic timing possibilities, there isn’t anything about this film that will leave the audience wanting. This is a must see for anyone able to handle material of an overtly sexual nature.
Three and a half stars out of four.
Watch the trailer.