The Sessions Review
Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes) is 38 years old, and he's a virgin. He is a talented poet and writer, well respected in his journalistic forays, particularly around Berkley, California where he is based. He's got a knack for wit and is effortlessly amusing. Mark is also a prisoner in his own body since he was struck by Polio at the age of Six. He spends his days strapped to an Iron Lung, but for a brief window of around 4 hours when he can be wheeled around town on a guerney. He is completely dependant on others for both mobility and survival. Now 38 years old, Mark has decided that the time has come for him to lose his virginity, and he sets about finding someone who will have sex with him.
The movie opens with some quite remarkable actual footage of Mark O'Brien graduating from Berkley university, it's coupled with narration in the form of news reports on the event at the time, and this sets the tone for what follows - a tale of determination, frustration, and hope. Mark is quite a religious man, though his interactions with the local parish priest, convincingly played by William H. Macy, are quite amusing. Incidentally, if there were an Oscar up for grabs for the most unusual and down-right freaky looking hairdo, Macey would be a shoe-in for it. Mark is pragmatic in his faith, but despite some reservations, he feels compelled to approach the priest to seek advice on whether he should feel guilty about what he intends to do.
Approval from God sought and bagged, the only remaining things to do is to find someone who will perform the act with him. Of course, this is not an easy task to achieve without a little help. Besides his quirky and comical relationship with his priest who urges him to to go for it, he has another friend, herself bound to a wheelchair from birth, who helps him find a “surrogate” for sexual therapy. The surrogate is Cheryl Cohen-Green (Helen Hunt). Cheryl is an empathic woman, whose professionalism in her field is second to none. It's quite a quirky situation, given that her role is to help Mark to lose his virginity, and it's a scenario that Mark finds plenty of humour in, despite it being an incredibly daunting situation for him.
Mark welcomes this new experience, despite the challenges that arise during the many sessions the pair arrange together. It's always formal, and this is something that Mark muses over, comparing the surrogate role she plays to the role of a prostitute. Not a welcome likeness for Cheryl, and she soon sets him right. She soon lays down the ground rules in a very formal way, explaining that she never conducts more than six sessions with any one client. This is to ensure that a relationship deeper than the one intended cannot form, and it keeps the two parties involved at a reasonable emotional distance from one another. At first, Mark is completely fine with this, but as you would expect, after two or three sessions, and once he's beginning to get better at having sex, Mark finds himself inadvertently falling in love with Cheryl.
It's a very honest and sweet movie that manages to remain humorously tasteful throughout. It avoids falling into cliches, and keeps it's head above water at all times. John Hawkes is tremendous as Mark O'Brien, an extremely challenging role, pulled off with confidence and clear understanding of what it musty have been like for the real Mark O'Brien. He manages to capture the comedic nature of the man with a genuinely believable sense of irony, and he never once fails to be convincing. There's something in the way that Hawkes delivers the role to us that makes us almost forget about his disability, and focus completely on who Mark O'Brien is - something I think this role would have suffered immeasurably without. Helen Hunt is outrageously good as Cheryl Cohen-Green. She's completely effortless in her performance, and the role itself is enhanced by her authenticity and confident charm. She helps to underline the fact that this is anything but a Judd Apatow style comedy about sex in all the wrong places for all the wrong people, firmly setting us straight as we wonder what on earth to expect from the character “commissioned” to take Mark O'Brien's virginity from him. She's surprisingly firm, yet warm and gentle in nature. Their relationship is so realistic and believable, that it's difficult to imagine anyone else pulling it off as well as Hunt and Hawkes manage it here, and if I'm perfectly honest, I have no idea why neither of them featured on the Academy's list of nominees for an Oscar in either Best Actor or Best Supporting Female categories. Nevertheless, it's impossible to pretend to understand the thinking behind who gets chosen, but it's with the utmost certainty that I state they've made a terrible mistake in not at least featuring these two as nominees.
It's a soft and delicate tale that has an air of romantic irony surrounding it, and plenty of sharp witted slaps along the way. A touching and memorable tale from Polish born director Ben Lewin, and though delicately handled for the most part, it does feel at times like Lewin is desperately tripping over himself to make sure we're aware that every moment in this movie is special. I don't like to admit it, but I'm afraid this heavy-handedness in constantly trying to remind me of how important and poignant scenes are supposed to feel for me is a little cheap. Things like single lines of script that really don't need to be there, or a deliberately lavish string movement in the score, held just that little bit longer than it needed to be can become every so slightly woolly after a while. Perhaps some won't mind feeling like their hand is being held throughout, and far be it from me to suggest that the movie falls over because of my own misgivings about it, but a little less obvious hand-holding wouldn't have gone amiss for me.
Thankfully, I found all the misgivings I do have about how Lewin presents the story to us easily forgivable. Though a polio survivor himself, Lewin resists the urge to become overly emotional in how he delivers the movie. It never once begged me to feel sorry for Mark, in fact, the pity at his situation comes completely from Hawkes' portrayal of the man. It never tries to make me like anyone either, rather relying on the actors' performances to help me make up my own mind about them. I think this shows a trust in his cast that's thoroughly deserved, and it takes some serious restraint to let subject matter such as this develop and become whatever it will. Lewins directorial errors are just that – directorial. They never really have a direct effect on how the movie makes us feel, for which I'm extremely greatful.
It's a delightfully funny, terribly sad and momentously captivating movie on the whole, and it's one that deserves a much bigger round of applause than it's received publicly so far. If you like a good romantic comedy, and can handle a little sadness and frustration to boot, then you could certainly do a lot worse than The Sessions. A good movie, that confidently avoids the many potential pitfalls that the subject matter has open to it, and it comes highly recommended indeed.
Our Review Ethos
To comment on what you've read here, click the Discussion tab and post a reply.