Editor’s note: With Sundance winner The Sessions (formerly titled The Surrogate) hitting limited release, here is a re-run of our festival review, originally published on January 25, 2012.
Based on the article, Seeing A Sex Surrogate, The Sessions takes you into the life thirty-eight year old Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) who has lived with polio since the age of six. Only able to be out of his iron lung for a few hours a day, Mark is otherwise stuck inside with just his thoughts, poetry, and faith. Most would resent a life like this, but Mark finds the humor in his situation, always putting those around him at ease and never letting the fact that he can barely move his head from side to side limit his ambition. Having graduated from the University of Berkeley, Mark now has even bigger aspirations in his life – he wants to lose his virginity.
Mark takes a shine to one of his aids and while it seems she seems to return his affection, when he expresses it, she gets scared and runs away. Mark jokes to his priest (William H. Macy) that he tried to go about his sexual revolution the “proper” way, but now he has another option he is considering – a sex surrogate who specializes in helping the disabled not only have sex, but teach them the tools and skills to have their own sexual relationships.
While the situation sounds strange (and let’s be honest, it is), it is handled with grace and dignity by Mark’s new aid, Vera (Moon Bloodgood), Carmen (Jennifer Kumiyama) whose home he uses (since he does not have a bed), and most importantly, Cheryl (Helen Hunt), Mark’s sex therapist. Cheryl approaches the situation as a therapist, being both clinical and caring and making it clear that she is simply a teacher and nothing more. But no matter what the situation, when sex is brought into any relationship, it’s hard for feelings to not get involved as well. The Sessions explores not only Mark’s development, but almost more importantly, how he affects those around him and influences their lives as well.
Director Ben Lewin succeeds in crafting a film that takes on a difficult subject matter in a way that portrays even the most awkward moments with humor and honesty. Hawkes literally transforms into Mark from his (limited) mannerisms to the intonation of his voice to his sense of humor and all the while keeping that undeniable charm that had us wanting to join his cult in Martha Marcy May Marlene last year and not be too intimidated by Tear-Drop in Winter’s Bone. Hawkes performance is most impressive because he is not only able to develop these natural relationships with the different women that come into his life, he does so in a way that is believable and you never once think these women’s affection for him is born out of pity.
The Upside: While losing his virginity and gaining sexual awareness is certainly a big part of the narrative, it is Mark and his unshakable desire to try and constantly push himself to live life to the fullest is the true story here.
The Downside: While Hunt delivers an impressive performance as Cheryl, her Boston accent (when it would flare up) was always distracting and felt forced.
On the Side: But really, is there anything Hawkes can’t do?