It doesn’t take much to give in and enjoy Ben Lewin’s fascinating “The Sessions”. Based on the true story of California based poet and writer Mark O’Brien, the film deals with O’Brien’s struggle with Polio and being forced to use an iron lung the rest of his life. It’s not as grim a subject matter as you may think. O’Brien is played by John Hawkes, a man we will certainly see at next year’s Oscar ceremony, in a performance that may recall Daniel Day Lewis’ in My Left Foot but with more humor and playfulness. Having learned to twist his body, learn to breathe carefully and use a mouth stick to dial a phone and type, Hawkes gets all the mannerisms right and makes us believe that he truly is in this sort of state. It’s no easy feat to act in a lying down position with an iron lung for an entire movie but if done well, this sort of showy performance usually spells awards for you.
O’Brien has been a virgin his entire life and decides to hire a sex surrogate to “de-virginize” him. That surrogate is Cheryl as played by Helen Hunt, in a supporting performance that will also be rewarded with a nomination. Hunt is spectacular bringing a sexy, fierce vibe that has been lacking ever since her “As Good As It Gets” triumph in 1997. The aforementioned sessions involving Hunt’s Cheryl and Hawkes’ Mark are the heart and soul of the picture. Cheryl has a 6 session limit with every disabled client she visits. The sex scenes are incredibly well handled and -dare I say it- the best and sweetest sex scenes I’ve seen all year in any picture. This is in fact the first movie I’ve seen where premature ejaculation is actually dealt with in a sweet, non joking way. Hunt and Hawkes have chemistry to burn in those scenes. Which reveal secrets about both characters that we might not see coming. The screenplay is at its peak in these scenes, where every word counts and every gesture by these characters brings new depth to the story.
Mark is a believer. Visiting church every Sunday and getting the blessing of his priest -playfully played by William H Macy- to go on this journey to lose his virginity. One cannot understand why Mark would still believe in God given his physical state but he jokingly says there must be a god given the fact that someone must have had a sense of humor the day they created him. The playfulness that comes with this movie is a real treat. It’s a small indie gem that gets all the details right. It’s a testament to the way the movie is handled that the vibe is never menacing and that Mark’s situation is never really handled in a way to manipulate your emotions or force you into tears. The film threatens to collapse in “TV movie cliches” and is shot like one too but the performances are just so strong and the story just so good that they elevate the movie into a true contender. “The Sessions” is an undeniably fascinating true story, one that makes you reevaluate your own life in ways you never thought you would. That’s the sign of a great movie.
“The Sessions” is currently coming out into wider release across the country. One might think that its buzz will only build up as it comes into new theatres and shows up in many critics’ top ten lists at year’s end. The good natured feel of the film can only spell crowd-pleaser and it could very well be the hidden surprise nomination for Best Picture. In a category filled with showy fare such as “Life Of Pi”, “Argo”, “Lincoln” and “Silver Linings Playbook” let’s hope it gets some sort of chance.