- Rated R
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All photos © Fox Searchlight
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
t seems like every year, there’s at least one film that emerges from Sundance with the potential to become a mainstream hit, and this year, that movie is “The Sessions.” Though at its core the film is essentially about a disabled man trying to get laid for the first time, it’s a lot more than just some strange blending of “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “My Left Foot.” It's an incredibly low-key and feel-good adult movie about sex that's much funnier than most people are probably expecting, highlighted by a pair of Oscar-caliber performances by its two leads, a great supporting cast and some sharp writing.
The movie is loosely based on the 1990 article “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate” by Mark O’Brien (played here by John Hawkes), a graduate of the University of California in Berkeley who worked as a journalist and poet despite the fact that, after contracting polio as a child, he’s paralyzed from the neck down and confined to an iron lung for most hours of the day. Mark’s unfortunate circumstance has prevented him from having a single sexual experience, let alone a romantic relationship, so when the local paper hires him to write an article about sex in the disabled community, he uses it as an opportunity to finally lose his virginity. After getting the blessing of his priest (William H. Macy), Mark agrees to meet with a sex surrogate named Cheryl (Helen Hunt), who specializes in teaching disabled people to feel more comfortable with their bodies. But while Cheryl emphasizes that they can only have six sessions together, Mark can’t help but grow attached to the one person that’s shown him the tenderness he’s been missing in his life all these years.
Thankfully, “The Sessions” doesn’t go in the direction that it appears to be heading toward, and that’s a really smart move on the part of writer/director Ben Lewin. It would have been all too easy to produce the kind of heavy-handed Oscar bait that generally waters down these types of inspirational stories, so it’s refreshing to see the material take such a lighthearted and ultimately more realistic route. A polio survivor himself, Lewin never martyrizes his main character, and in fact, it’s Mark O’Brien’s charming personality and self-deprecating wit that provides the movie’s wicked sense of humor. Additionally, Lewin knows when to curb the laughter and focus on the more dramatic moments, particularly during the sex scenes, which he uses to develop his characters with a certain frankness and intimacy that you don't see very often in films these days.
Of course, a lot of the movie’s success relies on its talented cast. Helen Hunt delivers yet another award-worthy performance as the down-to-earth sex therapist, and the fact that she spends part of the movie courageously in the nude only makes it that much more impressive. John Hawkes, meanwhile, follows up his excellent work in “Winter’s Bone” and “Martha Marcy May Marlene” with perhaps his best performance to date. He’s one of those rare actors with the ability to disappear into every role he plays, but he really shows his full range here by juggling both comedy and drama, all while restricted by his character's lack of physicality. William H. Macy and Moon Bloodgood are also great in supporting roles, and Ben Lewin puts in a solid shift behind the camera, but Hawkes and Hunt will garner most of the attention come awards time, and deservingly so, because it's their superb performances that make "The Sessions" so memorable.