Writer/director Ben Lewin’s The Sessions walked away with both the Audience Award and Special Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and has begun a slow-expanding limited release, while being sold on its self-proclaimed title as ‘The Festival Hit of the Year.’ The film is based on the autobiographical writings of one Mark O’Brien, a native Boston poet and journalist who spent the entirety of his adult life confined to an iron lung, following a crippling childhood bout of polio (the film’s prologue even includes archival footage from a news report about the actual O’Brien).
Sessions tells the story of how, in the year 1988 at age 38, O’Brien (brought to life by John Hawkes) decided to lose his virginity and sought the assistance of Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Helen Hunt), a professional sex surrogate – that is, a sex therapist who engages in physical relations with a patient. Thereafter, O’Brien anxiously, but willingly, begins his own sexual-coming-of-age with Cheryl’s assistance, as well as encouragement from his no-nonsense, but kind, caretaker Vera (Moon Bloodgood) and open-minded priest Father Brendan (William H. Macy).
What’s so gratifying about The Sessions is how it explores the interconnectivity of spirituality and sensuality in a clinical, yet very compassionate and adult manner, while also sufficing as a touching and very funny portrait of O’Brien’s extraordinary life. Moreover, Lewin’s script work (for the most part) isn’t interested in tugging on the audience’s heartstrings, nor is his approach to visual storytelling intrusive or excessively stylistic; similarly, the film’s cast forgo histrionics and showboating in favor of credible performances that fit the emotional tone at any moment. Hence, as a whole, Sessions doesn’t feel like your average awards-baiting dramedy.
Part of that can be attributed to how O’Brien is portrayed, through the combination of Lewin’s writing and Hawkes’ acting. The latter meets the physical challenge of the role by adapting an ever-tilted head, peculiar voice, and rigid body posture with an uncomfortable arch in his lower-spine (though, obviously, his musculature is a bit too well-developed for a paralyzed writer). Fortunately, Hawkes avoids making his transformation feel like little more than a gimmick – by instead playing O’Brien in an earnest fashion, making him believable as someone who is both self-aware of his own emotional naivety while simultaneously having a self-deprecatory sense of humor about it.
Hunt likewise excels in the role of Cheryl, a intelligent, but imperfect, woman who is unquestionably comfortable with her own body and sexual/emotional desires; there’s a sensitivity to her scenes with Hawkes that avoids ever becoming twee or falsely sentimental. Similarly, the discussions between Hawkes and Macy are quite amusing and tender, thanks to the frank manner in which O’Brien details his sexual journey-of-discovery to the supportive (if quietly-flabbergasted) Father Brendan. Their ‘complimentary sessions’ reflect O’Brien’s internal movement towards finding a common ground between his religious beliefs and sensual desires (which, in a refreshing twist, are suggested to be amicable); it’s admittedly a bit of an obvious narrative framing device, but a well-handled one, nonetheless.
Lewin seems to be generally-comfortable with allowing the plot to unfold naturally, without allowing it to feel shapeless or start meandering. There are a few instances where the proceedings start to become more dramatically-convenient (ex. when Cheryl starts to struggle with her feelings for O’Brien), but they thankfully do not head down a predictable road – nor do they clash too much with the otherwise organic flow of the narrative. As mentioned before, Lewis avoids the use of camera angles or aesthetic choices that call excess attention to themselves; even a pair of sequences set inside O’Brien and Cheryl’s respective minds work, as their semi-subconscious associations come off as genuine and authentic.
In many ways, The Sessions resembles one of the real O’Brien’s poems (which are incorporated into the story) – that is, neither flawless nor ever-graceful in terms of technique, but overall so gentle and sincere (as well as unconcerned with being profound) that it becomes all the more moving and easy to appreciate. Moviegoers interested in a film that deals with sex and love in what is both an unembarrassed and good-humored manner should very much consider giving this one a look.
Here is the trailer for The Sessions:
The Sessions is still playing in limited release, but will expand to more theaters over the upcoming weeks. It is Rated R for strong sexuality including graphic nudity and frank dialogue.