Ben Lewin

One of the highlights of any film festival is the panels and discussions that take viewers beyond simply watching the films into understanding the process behind getting them to the screen. In theaters now, The Sessions is a fictional story based on the real-life Mark O’Brien, who became paralyzed from the neck down after contracting polio and decided that, despite his physical limitations, he wanted to lose his virginity. John Hawkes brings Mark’s plight and writer-director Ben Lewin’s words to life through an unforgettable and transformative performance. The two sat down with The Hollywood Reporter’s Stephen Galloway this afternoon at the Roosevelt Hotel to discuss the film, the challenges they faced in making it, and the impact the film had on each of them.

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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.

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American Pie and Fast Times at Ridgemont High would be the best examples of a film like The Sessions, if it were filled with more lust than honest sexual desire (and younger people). What sets it apart from the flurry of raunchy teen sex comedies is that, in those films, we laugh at the characters because we were all once like them, but this film allows us to empathize with the main character for a much different reason. This is not a case of a protagonist being a virgin by choice, but by design, and due to developments in his work life he finds himself poised to be in contact with a sexual therapist named Cheryl (played well by Helen Hunt) who handles disabled clients. It’s a sex comedy for grown-ups. The humor in this movie is sharp, lovely and always great enough that its cute flirting nature is never left looking like cheesiness. The dramatic and romantic moments are heartwarming enough to spread out between every Lifetime film for an entire decade and still not run out. John Hawkes’ – playing the man in an iron lung looking to have sex for the first time – has a great way of making the awkward moments not so awkward and the disparaging ones touching.

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John Hawkes in The Surrogate

John Hawkes has quickly became one of my favorite actors by giving my favorite supporting performances of the last two years. First he was the oddly intimidating Uncle Tear Drop in 2010’s Winter’s Bone, and last year he was the strangely charismatic cult leader in Martha Marcy May Marlene. Both of those films made their initial splashes at Sundance, and seeing as this year Hawkes returned to the festival, this time in a leading role, with the movie The Surrogate, I think there’s a good chance he could give my favorite performance of the year overall in 2012. That is, if reports of the film getting lengthy standing ovations and the glowing review of our own very helpful Allison Loring can be believed. The thing that strikes me about Hawkes is the absolute authority he’s able to command his characters with. He’s a slight man, but he made me fear him completely as Tear Drop. He’s not a pretty man, but he sold me completely on the spell he had those girls under in Martha Marcy May Marlene. In The Surrogate he plays Mark O’Brien, a poet who suffers from Polio, which has left him with a severely curved spine. Hawkes gave a pretty lengthy interview about the movie to Vulture, and the most interesting bits of it, to me, were the parts where he talks about how taxing it was physically to bring this character to life. It sounds like we’re getting another Hawkes performance where he goes all in.

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published: 12.23.2014
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published: 12.22.2014
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published: 12.19.2014
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