Sex is a mysterious, terrifying, and wondrous thing, especially for someone like Marc O’Brien (John Hawkes) who has lived nearly his entire life unable to move a single muscle below his neck. After contracting Polio at the age of six, Marc has spent most of his life in an iron lung or strapped to a gurney. At the age of 38, inspired while writing an article about the sex lives of people with physical disabilities, he decides it’s about time he lost his virginity.
After getting the consent of his priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy, in another terrific supporting performance), Marc engages the services of Cheryl (Helen Hunt), a sex surrogate. Marc’s journey is far from an easy one, with both sad and humorous obstacles to be overcome.
Based on the true experiences of Marc O’Brien, adapted and directed by Ben Lewin, this little film about sex turns out to be a funny and sweet character study of a man and his relationships with the three most important women in his life (Hunt, Moon Bloodgood, and Annika Marks).
Hunt is certainly daring in the amount of clothing she repeatedly sheds for the role and both Bloodgood and Marks give strong supporting performances as the women who take care of Marc over the years, and who each love him in their own way. However, any discussion of the film must begin with the amazing performance by Hawkes who, aside from the not inconsequential physical demands of the role, infuses the character with spirit and such a myriad of insecurities it’s impossible, for either his priest or the audience, not to wish him luck on his journey of sexual discovery.
The Sessions isn’t a sex romp, but it certainly acknowledges the awkwardness inherent in Mark’s position. Nor is the film a love story, although it turns out to be at least as much about love, in the larger sense, as the physical act Marc attempts to achieve with Cheryl over their handful of sessions together. Not solely centered Marc, the script spends time showcasing Cheryl’s home life with her husband (Adam Arkin) and teenage son (Jarrod Bailey) and her growing discomfort with balancing that life as she grows a little too fond of her latest client.
Those not put off by the subject matter and the surprising amount of (Hunt’s) nudity, should certainly enjoy themselves. The Sessions is certainly a crowd pleaser, even if it is slightly too cute for its own good on more than one occasion. Although not particularly deep or complicated, the script creates fully formed characters that the actors inhabit easily and make their own. It may be a simple story, but it’s well told.
Hawkes, no doubt, will get some attention come Oscar time, but the film is likely to be overlooked for any other major awards. Hunt may get some attention, but she’s certainly overshadowed here by her co-star. I’d love to see Macy, who is terrific in small roles such as this as a man who finds himself in completely in over his head through no fault of his own, get some attention as well. The Sessions may not be for everyone, but those who are willing to seek it out will most likely be glad they did.