TIFF Review: 'The Sessions'

The Sessions
(USA, 95 min.)
Written and directed by Ben Lewin
Starring: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy
The Sessions is a bona fide tearjerker. It's the true story of Mark O’Brien, who was stricken with Polio at the age of six. Mark has since confined to a bed and he requires the aid of an iron lung to breathe. He has no mobility, aside from his ability to turn his head and smile. Mark, played in a triumphant performance by John Hawkes, has overcome considerable odds and accomplished quite a lot in his life. The Sessions is a heartwarming slice of life that deserves its moment in the spotlight.

The doctors said that Mark would be dead by the age of seven, but The Sessions opens in 1987 and Mark is now in his thirties and a university graduate to boot. He majored in English–the best subject to nurture his sharp mind–and he is now a successful writer and poet. Mark lacks fulfillment, however, in spite of his achievements and accolades. Life is lonely in the iron lung and he yearns for companionship. He has frequent caregivers, but some of them look on him with pity, rather than empathy, which hardly makes for a healthy friendship. He does have a cat, but, even then, he can't reach out and pet his furry four-legged friend. The cat can tickle Mark’s nose, but Mark can’t scratch the itch in return.

Mark decides to set a new goal for himself. His challenge is to cross the ultimate finish line of physical contact. Mark wants to have sex.

This is a considerably difficult task, since it's not as if Mark can go pick up at a bar. Following some sound advice from his priest (William H. Macy, a godsend of droll humour), Mark visits a therapist who in turn suggests that Mark enlist the help of a 'sex surrogate' named Cheryl, played by Helen Hunt. Cheryl the sex surrogate is hardly a prostitute. Instead, she uses her body as a tool for therapeutic release.

Cheryl gives Mark six sessions to lose his virginity. She permits only half a dozen trysts since only hookers thrive on repeat business. Additionally, an up-front limit deters all the messy emotional attachments that inevitably come through sex. During their sessions, Cheryl takes Mark through a surprisingly profound crash course in discovering his own body. From exploring and understanding the messages his body sends him, right down to appreciate his own body image, Cheryl provides a service that goes far beyond sex.

The Sessions is not so much a drama about sex and sexuality as it is a moving lesson on the importance of being comfortable in one's own skin. Much as Cheryl shows through Hunt's brave and stripped-down performance, exploring one’s body leads to a search for the soul.

Writer/director Ben Lewis handles the risqué material rather well. Although the bedroom scenes are rather graphic – one session features Mark trying oral sex on Cheryl –all the naughty bits are done rather tastefully. The Sessions celebrates the body in all its forms, and it takes a notably sober approach to the topic of physical disability, especially when it comes to sex for the disabled.

Essential to capturing the heart of The Sessions is Hawkes' performance as Mark. After giving strong work in small roles on HBO’s Deadwood and in independent films such as Martha Marcy May Marlene and his Oscar-nominated work in Winter’s Bone, Hawkes shows what kind of greatness occurs when a character actor finally lands thief leaf role he deserves. In a performance whose physical range is restricted solely from the neck upwards, Hawkes more than compensates in the emotional range of his portrayal of Mark O’Brien, as he will move the audience to both laughter and years through his touching portrayal of Mark’s plight to experience his body for the first time.

Helen Hunt is equally good as in her gutsy turn as Cheryl. Hunt makes a comeback in a performance that shows of her character’s security as well as her vulnerability. Also giving a winning performance in this strong ensemble (one of many at the festival) is William H. Macy as the local priest who enjoys Mark's sex stories just a bit too much.

The Sessions is a genuinely touching crowd-pleaser. It manages to have viewers laughing one moment and crying the next (sobs were just as audible as giggles during the screening I attended), and it does so without a single hint of contrived sentimentality. The Sessions speaks openly and from the heart. Thanks to a spot-on, profoundly human portrayal from the cast and crew, Mark’s story of reaching a major milestone is nothing short of life affirming.

Rating: ★★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)