The Sessions (4 out of 5 Stars)
Directed and Written by Ben Lewin
Starring: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, and William H. Macy
The Sessions, proves sex is not a dirty three letter word, but an act that can unlock some of the most beautiful emotions. In the "current American Society" (whatever that may mean) sex is deemed a perverse act, something taboo, and that is sealed in the sacred act of marriage. People act as though sex is an evil or something you do for the sake of procreation, and not for the sake of pleasure. Those who preach abstinence have created an agenda that make sex between anyone something that we dare not speak. This film takes the opposite approach proving that even within a film sex/sexuality can be something beautiful, and sacred.
The film centers on real life poet Mark O'Brien (Hawkes) who got polio at the age of six and has spent his life in an iron lung. Mark feels that throughout his life he has opened himself up to intimacy with others but because of the disease and his forced to live laying down this intimacy has never been returned. Mark seeks refuge and guidance with a new priest at his church Father Brendan (Macy), with whom he confides his deepest longings. After much consternation Mark seeks out the company of a sex surrogate named Cheryl (Hunt); she helps him explore his own trepidations with intimacy guiding him on a journey to his own sexual exploration, and happiness.
The key to this film is beautiful and raw acting from John Hawkes as Mark. Hawkes has proven his darker acting side in more recent films like Winter's Bone, and Martha Marcy May Marlene. In this film Hawkes shows a comical side proving he can make the you laugh, but there is so much vulnerability within his character. Mark wants to feel this genuine love with someone; he wants to feel as though he can form a lasting connection with another woman on spiritual and physical level. Hawkes gives one of the best performances of the year; he is one of my favorite actors at the moment because not only does his acting seem effortless, but because he makes you feel every little emotion throughout the journey with this courageous man.
Mark finds this physical and spiritual connection with Cheryl played by the radiant Helen Hunt. Hunt bravely puts it all out there in her acting and on the screen; she is fearless in this role, and proves that her Oscar for As Good as it Gets was no fluke. Cheryl has a vulnerable side to her as well; she is drowning in her need to conform to her own life, yet she strives for independence. As she spends the few sessions with Mark you get to Hunt transform this character, and feel a genuine joy and sadness for these two people. Hunt is a vision.
Together these two performances bring to life one of the best on screen couples of the year. As you watch there journey there are moments laughter, revelation, and of course the eventual pain of realism that brings these to characters to a realization that their sessions can only last so long. Together this on screen couple helps take this material to an astounding level. There is more to their journey than sex. Together they help Mark get a place of peace.
The film is lyrical, and provides a beautifully brilliant story of a man who fought to be something, and know something real. Writer/Director Ben Lewin's script helps transform this real life story/article into something that, which never pushes an agenda, but rather sensually caresses you. The film makes you believe in love, and the pursuit of that physical/spiritual connection with another person.