'The Sessions' Review: Hawkes, Hunt Stir Oscar Buzz with Tender, Fact-Based Drama
“I’m always in somebody’s way, I thought,” says the lead character in “The Sessions,” a film about someone in his 30s struggling with losing his virginity.
Loosely based on a true story, the movie follow a man who has suffered from a severe case of polio from a young age and is often confined to an iron lung. Equipped with a wry sense of humor and a determination to overcome his physical limitations, the character seeks to fulfill his goal.
Mark, portrayed by notable character actor John Hawkes, is a writer with an upbeat sense of humor and a strong spirit. Although he relies on people to bathe and clothe him, he is seldom downbeat or pessimistic about his condition. He simply struggles — often silently — to keep himself motivated. The problem for him, though, is he has few opportunities to meet people outside of his inner circle.
He becomes extremely close to his caregivers, falling for one of them believing her unconditional affection for him is the same as love. When he reaches out to her and opens himself up, she pushes him away knowing that she doesn’t hold the same feelings about him.
Mark eventually decides to seek the help of a sex surrogate named Cheryl, played by a gently powerful Helen Hunt. Cheryl is paid to visit Mark to help him fulfill his sexual desires. The housewife and mother treats her job like a typical one, easily addressing some of Mark’s physical limitations and his nervousness about such encounters.
Although the film’s plot sounds like it would be off-putting, much of the story is done with ease and carefulness. Mark’s internal longing for a female companion is evident from the pain that he feels when he is rejected time and again by people who care for him. It is difficult not to feel compassion when he gives up looking for a woman to love him for who he is.
A religious Christian, Mark ends up seeking the guidance of a priest named Father Brendan (William H. Macy). Near the beginning of the story, he asks the minister for his permission in using the sex surrogate. Brendan says that God would give Mark a free pass on it-- an unlikely occurrence but one that enables Brendan to become a sounding board for Mark throughout the film.
Hawkes and Hunt will likely receive Oscar nominations for their work. Although the story has some flaws, it is difficult not to be impressed with director and screenwriter Ben Lewin for bringing this distinctive and surprisingly emotional story to light.