Review of The Sessions

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Based on the poignantly optimistic autobiographical writings of California-based journalist and poet Mark O'Brien, who was paralyzed from the neck down when polio struck during his childhood. Throughout much of his life O'Brien breathed with the support of an iron lung. At the age of 38, he hired sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene to help him turn his dream of losing his virginity into a reality. John Hawkes plays the main character of Mark, while Helen Hunt is Cheryl Greene. William H. Macy also stars in the role of Mark's priest, Father Brendan.
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Movie Review: "The Sessions"

-- Rating: R (strong sexuality, graphic nudity, language)
Length: 95 minutes
Release date: October 19, 2012
Directed by: Ben Lewin
Genre: Drama

Film has a way of exposing issues affecting a small group of people in a way that makes sense to the masses. Movies can help viewers empathize with victims of situations that never would have crossed their minds. In this way, movies can be as effective as literature in helping an audience grow and mature.

In "The Sessions," the audience is introduced to Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes, "Winter's Bone"), a disabled man on the verge of a midlife crisis who is tired of being hemmed in by his limitations. In a desperate leap toward freedom and independence, he takes a step many men take at much younger ages. Mark O'Brien is on a quest to lose his virginity.

While the movie contains a generous amount of nudity and sexual content, the screenplay by Ben Lewin can be described as anything but crude or debasing. In fact, Mark takes great pains in finding an appropriate partner. He even discusses his decision with a priest and a therapist to make sure he isn't going to irreparably hurt himself or someone else.

Through this network of trusted friends, he makes contact with Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Helen Hunt, "What Women Want"), a licensed sex therapist. Through patience and compassion, she helps Mark explore one of the tacit experiences of adult life. Although some scenes are surprisingly intimate, they show sex as a partnership between two caring individuals. "The Sessions" is an astonishingly respectful, mature expression of physical love captured on film.

At the heart of "The Sessions" is the often ignored topic of the stunted sex lives of disabled individuals. It's a taboo subject even among advocate groups, leaving many people with handicaps struggling to deal with life barren of physical love. While based on a true story, Lewin does a spectacular job of handling this topic in a sensitive and respectable manner as both the screenwriter and director.

The film also does a good job of highlighting the roles of sex therapists as legitimate professionals and explores their impact on both mental and physical health. Americans might be surprised to learn the occupation exists or unaware of the legality of working hands-on with a sexual healer. Again, Lewin proves he can cover what could be an awkward or controversial subject in a delicate light.

"The Sessions" would not have been a success without exemplary acting from both Hawkes and Hunt. They're convincing in their roles and in their interactions with one another. The security and sense of purpose with which Hunt portrays Cheryl puts the audience at ease during the initial scenes between therapist and patient. Hawke's verve as a disabled man who has caught the bug of self-exertion helps catapult the plot along.

The other actors in the film also carry the weight of seriousness and sensitivity on their shoulders. William H. Macy plays the priest, Father Brendan, who helps to counsel Mark on his decision. Macy leaves his dark comedic muse on the shelf and delivers a sympathetic and believable performance.

"The Sessions" did very well at the Toronto Film Festival and has sparked Oscar rumors since its limited U.S. release in mid-October. The poignancy with which it explores such a taboo topic has captured the attention of domestic and international critics and wowed audiences who have taken the leap to see it in the theater.

It is the inspiring relationship between Mark and Cheryl and Mark's metamorphosis that takes place in the process that has won over movie fans and critics alike. It would be naïve, however, to pretend the sexual content itself hadn't lured in audiences, or the oddity of the plot. Plenty of fans of fringe cinema will enjoy "The Sessions" simply for being so entirely different from other films hitting the theater this year.

Hawkes takes on his role as Mark, a real writer and poet from California, as an exploration of his own life as an actor. Most widely known as the wild, brutish uncle in "Winter's Bone," Hawkes has a way of dissolving into his characters. The roles he plays wind up, somehow, completely believable. He was the perfect choice for a movie in which outlandish roles demanded to be taken seriously.

Overall, the movie is an excellent expression of the unique needs and experiences of disabled individuals and handles the delicate issues of sexuality well.

Rating: 3 out of 5