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The Sessions

2012 | 95 min | R | 1.85:1

The Sessions


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Theatrical release date

 25 October, 2012
 18 January, 2013

Country of origin

 United States

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The Sessions


Screenshots from The Sessions Blu-ray

The Sessions Preview  

 / 10
Preview by Brian Orndorf, November 1, 2012

“The Sessions” approaches an unusual story with a healthy sense of humor, a commitment to the comfort of faith, and a surprisingly adult appreciation of sex. While it may resemble yet another Oscar-bait melodrama boasting fiery performances and a powerful message, “The Sessions” plays largely low-key, working to create a human portrait of a physically challenged man hoping to find a little bedroom adventure before his time expires. Although the story seems like a rich opportunity for crude shenanigans, the movie is unexpectedly blunt and warmly sympathetic, displaying a refreshing commitment to the tense nuances of a carnal odyssey before its eventual slide into overcooked dramatics.

Hit with polio as a boy, poet Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) grew up with a frozen body and a sharp mind, continuing his education into college, feeding his curiosity about life. However, romance has always eluded Mark, often falling in love with his caretakers, including Amanda (Annika Marks), a young woman smitten with her responsibility, but unable to give her heart to the confused man. Fearing his life may be coming to an end, Mark decides to contact a sex surrogate to help him lose his virginity, soon placed into the care of Cheryl (Helen Hunt), who uses her time with the disabled man to further her personal research. Forming a bond while Mark struggles with intimacy issues and premature ejaculation problems, the pair works toward a sexual first for the patient, while Cheryl, who normally keeps close guard of her private life, finds herself opening up to her client, causing trouble at home with her husband (Adam Arkin). To keep himself on a moral path, Mark shares his adventures with Father Brendan (William H. Macy), an easygoing priest who enjoys hearing about his parishioner’s experiences.

The subject of an Academy Award-winning 1996 short documentary and a renowned writer, there’s plenty to the saga of Mark O’Brien to explore. An exceptional mind trapped in a motionless body, Mark built his legacy one letter at a time, using his gift with words to express emotions he physically couldn’t, spending most of his day inside an iron lung, giving him ample time to reflect on his existence and the elements missing from his life. Love and sex were top concerns, with “The Sessions” exploring Mark’s need to take command of his desires, to experience his body in ways he always felt embarrassed by, especially when caretakers unknowingly overstimulated his senses. Writer/director Ben Lewin (a polio survivor himself) wipes away the Lifetime leanings of the story to focus on matters of the heart and hard-on, studying Mark’s quest to shed his virginity, to finally partake in the wonders of the opposite sex.

Eschewing high comedy for an intriguing tone of curiosity, Lewin approaches Mark’s mission with a straightforward attitude, devoting much of the film to the intimate bedroom hours shared between the surrogate and her client as they work to curb his early release and manage a way to introduce penetration without discomfort. The sequences are clinical and refreshingly exposed (Hunt’s extensive nudity is treated with respect and authenticity), creating a wonderful familiarity that helps to understand Mark’s frustrations with his body and soul, while Cheryl’s work is complicated by her patient’s unique personality and gifts with communication. Despite a salacious plot, “The Sessions” boils down to human moments in a hurry, embracing scenes of humiliation and confession to best savor Mark’s trials as an immobile man aching to carry on a traditional life of love and tenderness.

Being a film devoted to subtle body movement and laser-precise facial reactions, “The Sessions” is lifted triumphantly by Hawkes’s remarkable performance. A full-bodied (pinched voice and all) representation of Mark’s limited movement, Hawkes delivers a sensationally expressive offering of acting that demands a complete physical transformation, not just depicting the man’s struggle with his body, but inhabiting the psychology of the role, keeping a soulful presence to the lead character that assists in the comprehension and celebration of his desires. Hunt is equally sharp, though with a less exotic arc to embody, maintaining more of a domestic disturbance tone as Cheryl slowly abandons her instincts to spend time with Mark, afraid to break his heart yet drawn to his unique sensitivity. Also enjoyable is Macy in a buoyant supporting role as man of God sucked into Mark’s sinful expedition.

“The Sessions” eventually melts into mournful melodramatics, but it’s a brief hit of the familiar to ease audiences into a satisfying conclusion (the final shot is actually quite wonderful). The slackness is felt but doesn’t derail the movie, which remains an understanding, candid story told with compassion and stimulating emotional awareness.

Starring: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy, Moon Bloodgood, Adam Arkin, W. Earl Brown
Director: Ben Lewin

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