Brimming with humor, honesty and raw emotion, “The Sessions” is nearly impossible not to like. It’s not the sort of film you’ll be wrestling over in your mind for days or weeks to come, nor the type of movie that slaps you across the face with a heavy-handed message.
Strip away the awards hype and the notion that it’s a “disability movie,” and it’s a very simple, feel-good story about love and self-discovery (and no, not the kind you’d find in pompous drivel like “Eat Pray Love”).
Based off “On Seeing A Sex Surrogate” by Mark O’Brien (a truly fantastic read if you ever get the chance), the film tells the true story of Mark (John Hawkes), a 38-year-old writer paralyzed from the neck down that desires to lose his virginity. With the encouragement of Catholic priest Father Brendan (William H. Macy, as a character written specifically for the film), Mark hires a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt) for therapeutic sessions that help him come to terms with his body, his sexuality and the intimacy that accompanies intercourse.
The film’s strongest asset is the subtly with which it approaches this story, which I largely credit to the talents of the actors and director Ben Lewin. Unlike many other disability films (such as Oscar-winner “The King’s Speech”), there is no triumphant fanfare or heart-tugging music that is nudging you to feel inspired, cooing, “Look, he finally did it! It might have taken the whole movie, but he finally ‘conquered’ his disability!”
No, “The Sessions” instead approaches Mark O’Brien as a simple human being seeking confidence and fulfillment of his basic, primal urges – not someone that is defined by the physical challenges he faces. When he and Cheryl, the surrogate, finally do have sex, it’s not some built-up, heartrending climax signaling that the film is nearly over, but rather a jumping off point for other questions regarding where they go from there: her, getting by in a marriage that’s lost its spark, and him, confined to an iron lung with little relationship prospects in sight.
Hawkes is almost unrecognizable here following his recent dark turns as a backwoods meth cooker (“Winter’s Bone”) and a manipulative cult leader (“Martha Marcy May Marlene”). As Mark, Hawkes is witty, charming and self-deprecating – making puns about his polio-inflicted condition before anybody can start pitying him. Say what you will about Anthony Hopkins and Daniel Day Lewis creating larger-than-life historical figures on the silver screen this winter – Hawkes is subtly brilliant in a performance that’s as emotionally draining as it is physically demanding. What he can’t emote with body language he does with his eyes, in turn creating a fully realized and likable protagonist.
Hunt is equally winning as the composed yet conflicted sex surrogate, and is all but guaranteed an Oscar nomination, rightfully so. She is completely sincere in everything she says and pulls off some of the film’s most heartbreaking moments with graceful ease (try not to get misty-eyed when she holds up a mirror so Mark can see himself). Her full-frontal scenes are by no means gratuitous, but sexy in how confident and easygoing she appears to be. You can see why Mark loves her so much, far beyond the mere physical attraction: it’s an emotional, human connection that allows him to realize just how much he has to offer the world and those around him.
“The Sessions” is one of the few films that I’ve seen recently where I was absolutely content with what I saw on-screen and couldn’t find one moment that did not feel genuine or out of place. It tells a basic, entertaining love story while introducing the audience to two worlds we may hardly know anything about (that of paraplegics and sex surrogacy).
“Silver Linings Playbook” may get all the glory this awards season as the emotional tear-jerker, but it will milk those tears for all their worth. “The Sessions”, on the other hand, doesn’t need to, which makes it a winner in my playbook.