It's not difficult to see why The Sessions walked away with the Audience Award at last year's Sundance Film Festival with its biographical tale of Mark O'Brien (played by John Hawkes), a survivor of polio which has left his body contoured at an impossible angle, bedridden most of the time, but immensely filled with the story about one man's odds to experience something which was thought not possible for someone inflicted with his condition. It has a wonderful themes, and a great cast to tell the solid story of one man's remarkable spirit, and fears even, and of those that rally around him.
Writer-director Ben Lewin begins almost documentary style to bring us a quick snapshot of Mark O'Brien's story, we learn of the conditions under which he has been living his life, which is spending most of his time inside what's called an Iron Lung, helping him breathe when he's home, and relying on an artificial respirator when he's out for a few hours tops. Probably one of the worst medical conditions to suffer under, is anything that cripples one's body, but leaving the mind alert, which calls for tremendous mind over matter. As a film, this is one of many plot devices that have been done many times over in various cinema, and I would recommend one not to brush this one aside, or lump everything together as under "seen one seen all", as each has a unique story to tell, and leave their own indelible, inspirational mark.
Admitedly for any fully functional male body, sex is something that's inevitably brought to the forefront, and for O'Brien, it becomes something he has yet to experience, and this is burning inside of him. He has a creative, romantic, and witty mind, but for whatever his mind can conjure, he's ulitmately let down by physical execution. One can almost relate to him in his quest to find emotional and physical intimacy, but having failed each time that it becomes exasperating for him, and sapping at his emotional core. This is that tale of thinking out of the box, humbling oneself even further and seeking external help for an experience. Which brings him the recommendation of hiring a sex surrogate.
John Hawkes deserves all the plaudits for his acting here, having to be physically restraint for the roll, and to focus his performance on what he can do facially, and vocally, keeping himself relatively still to transform believably into the character he embodies. It's a challenge done well, which will leave you to imagine that Hawkes did really become O'Brien. Being a religious man, Mark's inevitable consultation with a man of God, his priest Father Brendan (William H. Macy) who turns into his confidante, were scenes that were as funny as they were moving, where the counsellor had to put aside for a moment, issues about morality and sex, and provide wise counsel. Which comes with some perks of having listen in on the details about the sessions that Mark waxes lyrical about.
But all in all, this is a film about solid friendships, of those who had gathered around the courage, and humour even, of a man whose drawn one of the shortest stick in life, and having to make lemonade out of the lemons Life provided. These provided the story to focus on other enriching tales involving the women surrounding Mark's life, from his infatuation with one of his earliest caregivers Amanda (Annika Marks), to that of his current one Vera (Moon Bloodgood) possessing that mean sense of humour to counterpoint Mark's wit, his future wife Susan (Robin Weigert), introduced more for a bookending epilogue, and then there's Cheryl (Helen Hunt), the sex surrogate.
There's a difference between a surrogate and a prostitute, and Helen Hunt's careful portrayal brings out that clinical, almost scientific approach, in her assistance to help a man fulfill his desires. Like any scientific project, it calls for a systematic approach in understanding one's subject, and the parameters around which to operate. Undoubtedly the star had to shed her clothes for the role, but soon you'll get past gawking, and into the emotions that would naturally get in the way during each titular session.
one thing's for sure, that if he can't experience love in the physical form, he did get his fair share of emotional challenges that come from having to face rejection many times over, before succeeding to finally find someone with whom to share a life with. The chalking up of experience is what makes life fulfilling, whether or not they are positive or negative, and Mark's story when put into the context of any other challenges in life, becomes that inspiration to spur us on. A definite recommend.