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The Sessions


Year of release

Directed by
Ben Lewin

Written by
Ben Lewin
Based on “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate” by Mark O'Brien

John Hawkes
Helen Hunt
William H. Macy
Moon Bloodgood

The Sessions

Plot – After suffering from polio as a child which left him paralysed from the neck down, Mark O'Brien (Hawkes) has spent his whole life in an iron lung. Despite this he was still able to graduate from college, become a writer and a poet. At the age of 38 however he sets himself a new goal - to lose his virginity. This longing comes around as a result of two factors; he falls in love with his assistant and proposes marriage to her, a gesture which chased her away. And he takes on a writing assignment about the sex lives of disabled people. Fascinated by the prospect the devout catholic visits his priest, Father Brendan (Macy), for advice on whether it would be a sin or not. After being given the thumbs up he gets in contact with a sex surrogate named Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Hunt). The film follows the journey the two characters go on and the relationship that develops. Based on a true story

Given its subject matter this film could very easily have gone in several polar opposite directions. It could have chosen to embrace the unusual and ridiculous nature of the situation and played it up purely for laughs, a 40 Year Old Virgin In An Iron Lung if you will. Or it could have moved off into cheap and trashy territory had it chosen to sensationalise the events depicted. How refreshing it is then to find this story tackled in such an adult manner. The true life story of Mark O'Brien is treated with intelligence, respect, an honesty and a tenderness. It may not sensationalise what occurs but nor does it gloss over them. It addresses them in a forthright and mature manner.

However when you take into account that the film is basically the story of a man who spends the whole running time either in bed, on a gurney or in an iron lung, it comes as no real surprise that it's not exactly a dynamic film. It is a low key film which instead focuses itself as an acting showcase, and in that respect it is a great success. The film is basically comprised of numerous one one one conversations between Mark and the people who are drawn into his life. As a result I get the feeling that it could work just as successfully, if not even more so, were it to be transformed for the stage.

We feel great sympathy for the character of Mark O'Brien, but it does not come about as a result of Hawkes playing the role for the miserable tragedy that his life is, as the film could easily have had him do. Instead he imbues the character with wit and a dry, self-deprecating humour, making him someone who tackles life with a great strength and spirit. As a result we come to like and care for the character, and it is this that makes us wish this was not his life. It is an incredible transformation from Hawkes, so much so that I didn't actually recognise him while watching the film. It was only while watching the interviews on the DVD that I went 'oh that guy!'. He gifts Mark with such a inner strength and positive outlook that the film proves to be really quite life-affirming. Thanks to him the film also proves to be a surprisingly funny affair, with his droll delivery generating a good few laughs. My favourite line, concerning his faith, would certainly have to be “I believe in a God with a sense of humour. I would find it absolutely intolerable not to be to able blame someone for all this.” It also proved to be a physical challenge for him. In order for him to achieve the appearance of having a distorted spine, Hawkes spent the whole film with a solid cushion under one side of his back, said to be quite the uncomfortable experience.

A large part of the reason I wanted to see this film was the participation of Helen Hunt. Ever since the days of her portraying Jamie Buchman in the 90s sitcom, Mad About You, she is someone I have always liked, not just as an actress but as someone I always had a bit of a crush on. And yes I will admit that the horny 12 year old inside me wanted to see this film when I heard that she spent a good degree of it completely naked. Despite this proving to be true, as a result of the film's tasteful approach this does not come across as cheap or titillating. She is however a vision of beauty and elegance. As for her actual performance, she is terrific. She brings so much warmth and sensitivity to the character, and an amazing lack of self-consciousness. It's just such a frank and undaunted showing from her, well worthy of the Oscar nomination she received. The only real mystery is how John Hawkes didn't follow suit. Saying that someone delivers a 'brave performance' is perhaps an overused term these days but in the case of The Sessions that really is true. Hawkes and Hunt are just so completely exposed here, not just physically but emotionally.

Excellent support comes in the form of William H Macy as Father Brendan, a liberal catholic priest who is conflicted between following the bible to the letter of the law and between what he believes to be right. The conclusion that he comes to? That “I think God would say, 'Go for it'” Between them, Macy and Hawkes build a really sweet friendship. However when you consider that it's Macy, one of the most dependable actors around, it comes as no real surprise that he is such a success in the film. Something that is also true of Hunt and Hawkes. So the real surprise amongst the cast proves to be Moon Bloodgood. I have seen her numerous times, either on TV (Falling Skies, Journeyman) or in rather brainless films (Terminator Salvation, Faster) and had never taken all that much notice of her as an actress. Here however she dresses down to play a 'plain Jane' character and proves to be a genial and wryly humorous addition to the film.

Conclusion - The Sessions is a commendable and very fine film, but one that struggled to really stoke up the passion in me that I had been hoping for. I just felt it resembled a trite TV movie a little too often, though one with a much higher standard of acting on show. If however you are looking for an uplifting, grown-up film from Hollywood, or a showcase for fine acting, then I would certainly have no hesitation in recommending this sweet little film.