Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes – Miami Vice), a writer and poet, is commissioned to write an article for a magazine dealing with sex and the disabled community. Mark has polio and requires an iron lung to help him breath at night, whilst being cared for all day by helpers. His research takes him to a sex surrogate named Cheryl (Helen Hunt – As Good As It Gets) who decides to help Mark in his voyage of discovery to lose his virginity and in turn, help him deal with his personal anxieties surrounding love, life, relationships and sex.
In the hands of a lesser talent, The Sessions could have gone spectacularly wrong. Thankfully writer/director Ben Lewin has done a remarkable job painting this story onto such a large canvas. The Sessions is heartfelt, poignant and touching, a rare mix that Hollywood rarely delivers these days and fully deserved the ‘award season’ buzz surrounding it.
John Hawkes hands in a career-best performance as the poet Mark O’Brien. His is a very delicate performance that perfectly captures the inner turmoil of the disability. The confining restraints of his disability coupled with his free spirited nature are a fascinating paradox that Hawkes manages to balance just right. At no point do you feel that this has been sensationalised or played overly sentimental. We get to understand what its like to be Mark but more importantly, we explore his anxieties surrounding love, life and sex in a truthful and relatable way.
Hawkes rightly gets all of the plaudits but the role of Cheryl is beautifully constructed by Helen Hunt. The actress hasn’t appeared in much since her Oscar win for As Good As It Gets 16 years ago but The Sessions proves that Hunt has a relatable and unmistakable quality about her that makes her a perfect choice for this role. With warmth and compassion, Hunt makes Cheryl a wonderfully complex and layered character that is always a joy to watch. She also does a wonderful job in exploring how the obvious tension and strain of her profession affects her family and her very soul.
The sex scenes are handled with maturity and grace. There are even dashes of comedy thrown in too – but again, always for the good of the story and never in an exploitative manner. It also does a wonderful job in dissecting the differences between love and sex, and what we all strive to attain for happiness in everyday life. The Sessions explores a remarkable man’s life blighted by harsh circumstance but it also universally investigates what it means to feel loved and our eternal search for companionship.
The Sessions covers a fascinating story in a relatable and sweet way. It doesn’t shy anyway from any difficulties and instead embraces this fantastical but true tale to create a very strong movie. Throw in a scene-stealing turn from William H. Macy and you have a wonderfully absorbing film that kick-starts 2013 in the right way.