Courtesy of Fox Searchlight
For a story about one man’s quest to lose his virginity, there’s nothing raunchy or crude about “The Sessions,” a breakout hit from this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it garnered the Audience Award.
Based on a true story, Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes, “Martha Marcy May Marlene”) is a polio-stricken poet and author who lives with an iron lung and uses a gurney to move around with the help of his assistant Vera (Moon Bloodgood, “Conception”). When asked to interview disabled patients about their sex lives, Mark seeks permission from his church priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy, “The Lincoln Lawyer”), about hiring a sex surrogate to lose his virginity.
The rest of the film then tackles questions about human sexuality and intimacy with frankness grounded in humor. In fact, the comedy in the film, mostly stemming from Mark’s witty conversations with his priest and his surrogate Cheryl (Helen Hunt, “Soul Surfer”), makes the film accessible.
Despite the abundance of jokes about sex, not once does it feel immature or self-indulgent. The screenplay skillfully undercuts some of the more expositional material about touchy topics like religion with a deeper emotional core.
The film benefits greatly from the chemistry that Mark has with the people around him. Hawkes’ wonderfully nuanced and intelligent portrayal gives the film the bulk of its charm. The fact that he is physically limited to move only his head does not diminish the warmth and humor he imbues in Mark, which only makes the audience much more sympathetic towards him.
His conversations with Brendan, his moral compass, reveal a lot about his religious beliefs. Macy plays Brendan at the start of the film with vague disinterest. But as he spends more time with Mark, he injects the character with genuine concern despite the incredulity of Mark’s situation.
Apart from Brennan, Mark spends most of his time onscreen with his sex surrogate. As Cheryl, Hunt delivers a fine natural portrayal of a woman unafraid of her sexuality and even more unafraid of showing her naked body to the audience for the majority of her screen time. She charts Cheryl’s growing fondness (and possibly love) for Mark with aplomb that culminates with a touching scene by the porch while reading Mark’s poem.
Despite the great characterizations of the three main leads, the film falters a bit in its handling of the minor characters like Vera. In one particular scene during a sex session in a motel, the scene cuts to Vera flirting with the front desk secretary. The inclusion of scenes like this were unnecessary and hamper the film’s focus on its main characters.
Still, the film is triumphant. It exposes the audience to plenty of sex but always approaches the scenes with sensitivity. It also is an unexpectedly enjoyable and moving experience that delivers on the comedy while also serving a lot of heart.