The new movie The Sessions tells the story of a man who, shortly before his 40th birthday, finally loses his virginity.
But that’s about the only thing it has in common with a certain Steve Carell movie.
Actually, The Sessions tells a true story, that of Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), a writer in Berkeley, Calif., who contracted polio when he was young and who’s spent most of his life paralyzed from the neck down, supported by an iron lung.
Despite being a romantic and something of a ladies’ man, O’Brien has never enjoyed the touch of another human being for any kind of intimacy. So finally, at the age of 38, he decides he wants to lose his virginity. Since O’Brien is also a devout Catholic, he first gets permission from his priest (William H. Macy), who tells O’Brien that God “will give you a free pass on this one.” After all, as O’Brien explains, “Sex is a serious matter. It’s one of the most persistent themes in the Bible.”
And so, he meets Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Helen Hunt), a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt), who makes it happen over the course of six sessions. (That’s the chief difference between a surrogate and a prostitute: A prostitute wants repeat business, while a surrogate’s role is more finite.)
Hawkes, a veteran of such films as last year’s excellent Martha Marcy Mae Marlene, has slimmed down, and here, with his gaunt frame and limited motion, gets his My Left Foot role. With just facial expressions and a squeaky voice, he conveys O’Brien’s confidence, fear, and charm. You root for him the whole time, you feel his heartbreak when things don’t go his way, and you sympathize when he’s scared and says he feels like he’s not worthy of such pleasure.
Hawkes can deliver a line like “My penis speaks to me” without it being corny or pandering — though it certainly is both. It’s a performance that’s just begging for an Oscar nomination, so it’s likely you’ll be hearing a lot about it as awards time comes near.
Despite his lack of physicality, Hawkes has convincing chemistry with Hunt, who looks great. She often appears fully nude and speaks candidly about what’s transpiring, but it’s all just matter of fact to her character. Hunt effectively captures the challenge of how Cohen-Greene tries to make the endeavor clinical, but finds O’Brien and his plight awfully hard to resist — and how she balances that with being an otherwise happily married wife and mother.
Macy serves as the audience surrogate, taking a conservative approach to a forbidden activity, but letting his humanity overtake his religious obligations — and along the way, providing the double-take reactions that often garner laughs.
The whole thing is rather touching — as much as that might sound like a pun.
In fact, I dare say that’s exactly the word writer/director Ben Lewin, himself a polio survivor, would want you to use when discussing his crowd-pleaser of a film, which is based on O’Brien’s essay about the experience.
But that’s kind of the problem. Despite its subject matter, The Sessions is aimed so squarely at a mainstream audience, and is so sweet, that even though it’s enjoyable and certainly well made, it’s almost too polished and safe.
Call it a mainstream indie if you will, but The Sessions could have used a little more of the independent, raw sensibility and a little less of the cleaned-up Hollywood production values.
Is that enough to knock the film down a peg? I think so. This is a film that may have had even more of an impact if it had the same kind of unvarnished honesty and directness that O’Brien used in his essay.
But that said, The Sessions is, like its protagonist, a real charmer — thanks largely to the performance of Hawkes. It’ll warm your heart and leave a lasting impact, much like the real O’Brien did for so many people he met in his lifetime.
I’m giving The Sessions a B+.