‘The Sessions’ Review
Based on a true story of a man stricken with polio, confined to an iron lung and who is determined - at age 38 - to lose his virginity. 'The Sessions' takes a frank approach to disability and sexuality that is touching, poignant and wise and is a lead contender for the upcoming Oscar season.
John Hawkes' Mark O'Brien, a heavily-accented Bostonian transplanted to Berkeley, defeated the odds by getting a college degree, and is a journalist and poet. His mind is sharp but his body is locked-up and frail. He can spend only limited amounts of time outside of his breathing tube, and then he is wholly dependent on whomever is pushing his gurney. He forms a bond with his female aide, makes a pass at her, and is politely rejected.
He's made peace with the fact that he'll never have a normal intimate relationship, but he can't quite accept that he'll never get laid. He catches wind of a "sexual surrogate" program, wherein trained specialists will help a severely disabled person orient themselves with their bodies. This therapy includes having sex. Enter Helen Hunt plays a caring, loving and married woman quick to disrobe and engage in prurient activity that is simultaneously clinical and alluring.
Legal loopholes (like limiting the amount of sessions) differentiate this from prostitution and keep it legal. Of course, Mark is a devout Catholic, so he's got to run this by his priest. (The shaggy-haired William H. Macy, himself frustrated by his vow of celibacy, makes for a wonderful soundboard and, eventually, confidante.)
I don't have to tell you that Mark is no ordinary client. He is exuberance, wit and joie de vivre soon send Hunt's character into an existential crisis. It's just expected that there will be projections of feelings from someone whose never known closeness before, but when the very professional Hunt starts questioning her own feelings (and her own methods) there ain't a dry eye in the house.
This may all sound a bit heavy, but 'The Sessions' is a very funny movie. The jokes don't come at Mark's expense, they come from the boldness of his character. John Hawkes probably did cartwheels when he saw this script. Those who really know film ('Winter's Bone,' 'Martha Marcy May Marlene,' three seasons of 'Deadwood') are all hip to Hawkes, but this is going to catapult him into the A-list. Hawkes can wind up being the next Dustin Hoffman after this role. (He even has a distinctive accent like Ratso Rizzo.)
The basic structure of 'The Sessions' is very traditional, even formulaic. The specifics, however, are endlessly fascinating. I mean, there are moments that play like a sports film, except instead of cheering for a winning goal you are holding your breath and hoping John Hawkes maintains an erection. 'The Sessions' bluntly expresses how sexuality is a key part of everyone's personality, but the film is never lewd. Some extreme prudes may blanche at the film, but maybe they could use a session or two themselves.
'The Sessions' hits theaters on October 26.
Jordan Hoffman was the movies editor at Hearst Digital’s UGO for four years and currently contributes to SlashFilm, MTV’s NextMovie and StarTrek.com. He’s made two marginally successful independent movies, is a member of the New York Film Critics Online and was named IFC’s Ultimate Film Fanatic of the NorthEast in 2004. Follow him on Twitter at @JHoffman6.