Mark O'Brien is a professional poet and freelance writer who has spent most of his life in an iron lung. Stricken by polio at a young age, O'Brien developed a sharp wit and a philosophy that everything is funny. Mark decides that he wants to lose his virginity but fails in his attempts until he is offered a job writing an article on sex and the disabled. This leads him on a winding path to Cheryl, a professional sex surrogate who can offer him six sessions to teach him all about sexual contact and intercourse. The Sessions is a strange little jewel of a film. Ben Lewin directs and adapts the film from Mark O'Brien's essay "On Seeing a Sex Surrogate." It is a wry story, pairing up a Catholic priest and the man in the iron lung against the rest of the world that seems free to have sex whenever and wherever they want. The conflict between a very conservative faith and the wild nature of the greater world is only the start of the tension in the film.
John Hawkes' portrayal of Mark O'Brien is a portrait in self defense mechanisms. He will cut you down with words if he doesn't want to deal with you. He is blunt to a fault but only when he chooses to be. His O'Brien is also a kind, thoughtful man obsessed with the beauty of irony in the modern world and fearful of his own mortality.
Hawkes' performance is all the more remarkable for his inability to move onscreen. O'Brien's polio left him with minimal mobility in his face and neck. His spine is twisted and his body totally emaciated. Hawkes, through some phenomenal practical makeup work from Natalie Wood and her team, manages to bring out a large, believable persona that--through narration--refuses to cast anyone, no matter how cruel and thoughtless, as a bad person.
Helen Hunt also shines as the sex surrogate. Her portrayal of Cheryl is a brilliantly nuanced take on the role. There are so many layers going on internally that ride throughout her entire body like the waves on the ocean. You never know how she is going to react beyond a quick return to some guise of professionalism. This is a woman extremely conflicted over her professional role as a therapist. She struggles to process the charm of a man who wants nothing more than to make her--or any other woman--happy.
The Sessions is very funny and heartfelt the entire way through the film. The big question mark is the ending. This is not a film that deals in melodrama or schmaltz until its final lingering moments. It's an ending that is at odds with everything else that came before it in the feature. The film could have ended a scene before and been a brave, bold exploration of sexual freedom from the perspective of a sheltered Catholic. Instead, the final scene overplays its hand in trying to turn Mark O'Brien into an inspiring figure. He was already inspiring. He didn't need any outside help to prove that from the first scene of the film.
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