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The Sessions

Director/writer Ben Lewin triumphs with an endlessly imaginative, edgy, and often prickly cinematic journey called The Sessions, a fact-based story that is an intelligent and emotionally charged look at a refreshing topic not really broached before.

This is the story of Mark, a soulful poet who is paralyzed from the neck down and lives in an iron lung. He can only be away from the lung for three or four hours at a time and can only move his head. As you can imagine, Mark's thinks about sex a lot and becomes obsessed with losing his virginity. Because of the special problems that sex would cause for Mark, he finds he has no option but to enlist the aid of a sexual surrogate named Cheryl to help him achieve his goal.

This film fascinates from jump due to an instantly likable lead character in Mark, who reminded me of Rocky Dennis in Mask, a man resigned to his life and still being able to laugh and smile about just about anything. Mark doesn't speak without filter, but he is always honest, one of the few movie characters I can recall who is rarely caught in a lie. It is revealed that Mark's condition stems from polio, but flashbacks reveal a normal childhood so we don't know exactly how long he's been in this condition and it is never documented, but for the first time with a movie character like this, I really didn't care...Mark was such a breath of fresh air that all I cared about was his present and his future.

The film also provided an eye-opening look at the difference between sex surrogacy and prostitution, which is beautifully explained by Cheryl who makes it clear to Mark minutes into their first meeting that they will only have six sessions together and that she is a private woman with a private life. The work of a sex surrogate, according to this film anyway, can be quite the emotional roller coaster and it is fascinating watching Cheryl do her best to leave her work at the office, so to speak. We are almost shocked when it is revealed that Cheryl has a husband and a teenage son and during their first scene together, her husband refers to Cheryl as a "saint"...I was thinking the same thing about the husband.

Things get complicated, which was a bit of a surprise because prior to meeting Cheryl, we had already witnessed Mark scare off a caregiver by being a little too free and easy with his emotion, but I loved the way Cheryl remained the consummate professional throughout...there's a great moment where she's recording her progress with Mark and documents the fact that the man is developing inappropriate feelings for her. Mark's emotions bring the story some dark directions and there is a really scary turn in the final act, but this is a story that it is impossible to look away.

John Hawkes' powerhouse performance as Mark is endlessly charming and Helen Hunt received her second Oscar nomination for her crisp and controlled Cheryl, a character whose intelligence, compassion, and professionalism are a marvel to behold. Also loved William H. Macy as Mark's priest/sounding board, Moon Bloodgood as Mark's caregiver and Adam Arkin as Cheryl's husband. Lewin's screenplay is thoughtful and filled with warmth and laughter and the film is beautifully photographed and scored. Drink this one in because you're not likely to see anything like this again.