Director: Ben Lewin
Starring: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy, Moon Bloodgood, W. Earl Brown
What is the difference between a sex surrogate and a prostitute? According to Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Hunt), prostitutes want your return business. Mark O’Brien (Hawkes) spends ninety percent of his day living in an iron lung. The rest of the day is spent being carried around on a gurney by his attendant, Vera (Bloodgood). Whether it is clothes shopping, going to church, or visiting other friends, Vera is by his side bringing him where ever he needs to go. Mark suffers from polio and his body has become quite weak. He suffers great pain when he needs to move his arms and legs if it is not done with the utmost care.
Despite being only 38 years old, he feels his time on Earth is limited and coming to an end sooner than later. He desperately feels the need to lose his virginity and to feel what sex is like before he dies. He consults his priest Father Brendan (Macy) on the morality behind this. Would God be okay with sex outside of marriage in this circumstance? Mark hires sex surrogate Cheryl to help him lose his virginity. The first couple of sessions are a bit awkward as Mark struggles with his physical limitations. Mark is not a shy man and continues to fill in Fr. Brendan with the updates from each of his sessions no matter how many other people are sitting in the pews at church or how intimate the discussion gets.
The Sessions could easily have been a heavy and depressing movie mirroring something you would find on Lifetime. It is the exact opposite of that. Writer and director Ben Lewin wrote this screenplay after reading Mark O’Brien’s article “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate”. The real Mark O’Brien must have had one wicked sense of humor. I was pleasantly surprised at how funny and warmhearted the movie felt. Lewin is a polio survivor himself which gives the movie an additional feeling of honesty and beauty. While the movie may have more sex scenes than you are used to seeing, it never comes across as graphic or shocking. Watching two completely opposite people grow and learn from each other leaves a bigger impact on each scene than the physical act that initiated the connection.
You may not recognize John Hawkes as he does a remarkable job transforming his body and speech to portray the polio-stricken Mark O’Brien. If you have seen Winter’s Bone, Lincoln, or HBO’s “Deadwood” you have seen the work of John Hawkes before. He is the type of character actor that when he pops up, you know his face but somehow can never remember his name. He always gives a stunning performance no matter how big or small his character is. He balances the seriousness of the situation with enough humor without ever having to beg for pity. I love when an actor completely surprises me. I thought I knew going in what kind of performance Helen Hunt was going to give. She topped my expectations by giving one of the best performances of her career. She is completely vulnerable and lets the audience in on every thought and emotion Cheryl goes through as her life is altered by the effect Mark has on her. Tender, poignant, touching are easy way to describe this interesting story. This is the kind of indie movie you will be glad you risked the price of admission on.
RATING: **** 1/2 (4.5 out of 5 stars)