Here’s a true story that shouldn’t work as a movie, let alone a movie this good. John Hawkes stars as Mark O’Brien, a Polio survivor who spends hours of his life in an iron lung and cannot do his day to day activities without the assistance of someone to dress him and push him around on a cart. O’Brien is a poet with a brilliant mind and a healthy, even cynical attitude about his life and, as he ponders his life expectancy, decides he has one enormous mission left: to lose his virginity.
A sympathetic and atypically hip man of the cloth (played by a scene stealing William H. Macy) encourages Mark, whose research about what a man in his fragile condition is capable of leads him to Cheryl, a “sex surrogate” (played by Helen Hunt). Mark helpfully tells her and us that he isn’t paralyzed but his muscles are working against him and sex in any conventional way may be out of the question. The film deals with his physical efforts with Cheryl to gain sexual prowess of some sort.
I’m happy to tell you that, yes, it’s a comedy. But that doesn’t let the more conservative audience members off the hook. The plot description above could be a film that is quite sleazy, mawkish and wrong in a variety of ways. The Sessions works as well as it does because it wants you to laugh, with Mark and not at Mark, and, even more amazing, it turns his journey into a recognizable, even universal one.
Thanks to writer/director Ben Lewin’s screenplay, Mark becomes a real person and you’ll see the wonderful man trapped inside a broken body. Mark’s quest for sex is mostly a springboard need for close physical contact and a desire for romance in his life. His fears about his first time and what having sex means to someone will mirror that of many audience members.
In high school, when sex was the Everest of life experiences and seemed a scary, exciting and intimidating event–this is how Mark sees it, which is how everyone did. His quest for a sexual connection results in scenes that are frank and contain nudity, to be sure, but this isn’t an exploitative or crass film. Thinking back on the movie, the sex scenes aren’t what stay with me.
If you can believe it, this is a love story and an ode to the possibilities in life. The performances are a collection of actors cast against type and going in bold new directions. You probably won’t recognize Hawkes from Winter’s Bone or Martha Marcy May Marlene, in which he played intimidating, even terrifying men of great physical presence. Here, Hawkes is unrecognizable in the vulnerability he gives to his character’s physicality and even his voice. Hunt’s performance is possibly her best and Macy generates a great deal of warmth from his supporting part.
This is a very special film, though there are some flaws. Moon Bloodgood plays Mark’s current caretaker and, whereas the actress has frequently played action movie heroines or eye candy parts, she transforms herself here into an inviting, delightful character actress. Her role seems to be a major part of the story but, at either the writing or editing stage, her role never expands as much as the early scenes promise, which is a real flaw.
So is the dialog, which becomes very Hallmark card in the last half. Even for a film about a poet, the words spoken by the actors get too flowery, too good to be true to be believable. Also, while Hunt is often nude, the camera pretends not to notice and treat her nakedness tastefully. But Hawkes’ nudity is hidden in ways that feel dishonest.
Despite some missteps, The Sessions makes the excitement and fear of sex for the first time seem universal and quite funny.
★ ★ ★
Rated R / 95 Min.