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In The Sessions, John Hawkes is real-life poet Mark O’Brien, paralyzed from the neck down after a childhood polio affliction and relegated to an iron lung. At age 38 O’Brien decided it was time to lose his virginity and hired a sex surrogate, played with tremendous bravery by Helen Hunt, to take care of the issue. Their ensuing relationship over six sessions together is the crux of this intimate tragicomedy that, while not extraordinary, wins points on performances and its frank, adult approach to sex as an equalizing, healing force.
When O’ Brien is tasked with writing a magazine feature on sex for the disabled, his interviewees spark a lifelong curiosity—and he decides to embark on losing his virginity. After his love for a young nurse (Annika Marks) falls flat, he confides his fears to a local Catholic priest (William H. Macy, in top comic form). With the help of a unsentimental assistant (Moon Bloodgood), he contacts Cheryl Cohen Green (Hunt), a forthright suburban mom and sex surrogate who specializes in working through patients’ issues, though she’s got a few buried ones of her own, the most interesting part of this low-key picture.
While Mark’s process of losing his virginity and releasing a lifetime of guilt is expected, it’s married Cheryl’s slow, guarded opening to her client—whose words, not prowess are key—that is most surprising. Hunt has a powerful late scene in a car where we watch her process the unavoidable emotional implications of a career from which she’s been largely detached.
Hawkes, the unconventional star of Me, You and Everyone We Know, Winter’s Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene, gives quite a performance given that he’s confined to a bed and unable to move throughout the entire picture. He makes O’Brien’s guilt, insecurities and small triumphs exceptionally affecting.
But it is Hunt, approaching fifty and going fully nude several times here while baring her soul and who, simply by virtue of looking in the mirror at the lines in her face, conveys an unexpected and weary gravitas of a woman who has much sex and no passion in her life. It is a hell of a performance and welcome return for an actress not often enough onscreen.
Writer-director Ben Lewin delivers The Sessions with a tone that frequently seems too light for the material, courtesy of Macy, a priest not averse to a six pack, and a developing bond between Bloodgood and a droll motel manager (Ming Lo) fascinated by the proceedings. It’s not a comedy, but could have stood a bit more pathos before the screenplay rushes a jarring late act shift that nearly takes our investment out of the picture.
Still, The Sessions is a well-acted movie, intimate, thought-provoking and inspiring in its message that love, for each of us, can never come too late.
Fox Searchlight presents a film written and directed by Ben Lewin.