A heartfelt and honest movie that brilliantly executes a strange premise
Hear this out. The Sessions is the true story of which Mark O' Brien, a polio victim who survives and breathes through an iron lung, wants to lose his virginity from a sex surrogate. Sounds strange? Well, you're not alone. John Hawkes plays Mark O' Brien, a poet and a journalist, who has a positive outlook at life, despite his condition, and is very religious. He wants to experience sexual intercourse for the first time in his life, because... he wants to and does so by having sessions with a sex surrogate Cheryl Colin Greene (Helen Hunt) in where he gets to know more about her in and out of it.
As bizzare as the pitch goes, The Sessions is brilliantly executed by director Ben Lewin, who is also a real life polio survivor. With movies revolving around a mentally or physically handicapped person, my main problem with them is that the character has never been given a fully fledged arc and is only there to win sympathy from its audience, cheapening the subject matter and not expressing the voices of these characters from the performances, leading to the worst part of the actors being rewarded for doing so. It is obvious for Lewin to gain any sympathy for O'Brien from his audience, but he addressed these problems with full respect of his characterization and giving him much more honest voice.
The film often relies on sex jokes, particularly in one scene where Hawkes asks his assistant why they refer to their penises as dicks. But Levin brings it delicately also bringing the charm of the film to where it is much needed. It may not be laugh-out-loud ala 50/50 but it is very earnest. From the amount of nudity and adult themes displayed, this film doesn't tries to be sexy nor does it tries to be too serious about his reasoning for this.
John Hawkes is perhaps the centre of the film, which is a character study and he delivers one of the most daring performances of the year. After the likes of indie hits like Winter's Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene, he steps out of his gritty and tacky character to play a very straight-out, occasionally horny but ultimately strong man who as I mentioned before, is very optimistic and virtuous in his pursuit of needs that are obviously unpredictable, but are nonetheless important to his well-being.To put himself in where he is confined to a machine that is his life support is astounding and his character is more of an en devour. Helen Hunt is also brave and is very comfortable about discussing her libido building a personal connection with Hawkes as they both have brilliant chemistry. William H Macy, who plays a pastor and religious mentor for Mark is also enjoyable to watch as he reminds him that his beliefs does not go in the way of his needs even if his sexual desires prevent him from being a good Christian.And it's not just Hunt and Macy that Hawkes have a relationship with, but is also his new young assistants current and former, played by Moon Bloodgood and Annika Marks respectively. They have a fair amount of screen time and form a bond with the guy the same way as he does with everybody else.
Overall, The Sessions is an excellent film about mental illness put together in its light-hearted and sincere way. I would not think Hawkes would gain anything else other than awards recognition for delivering "man with an iron long" performance very generously and is more deserving than anyone who had played the character before. Movies about a person's mental illness such as Rain Man, Forrest Gump and I Am Sam has always been about how the character think that being normal is better than being handicapped and place it in sentimentality that is not organic and rather forced. But with The Sessions, it doesn't do that and instead ask its audience to sympathise Mark not because of his condition, but rather his attitudes in life that are clearly defined. As a result, it becomes emotionally resonating.