By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Two questions occur to us as we watch The Sessions and notice that there’s absolutely no sensation of déjà vu.
Have we ever seen this combination of sexual forthrightness and tasteful sensitivity in a movie before?
And has a film about a guy intent on losing his virginity ever surfaced that was this inspirational and life-affirming?
Same answer to both: doubt it.
The Sessions, originally titled The Surrogate, is a smart, vital, delicate, and amusing inspirational drama, the true story of 38-year-old poet and journalist Mark O’Brien in Berkeley, California in 1988, whose polio-weakened, always-horizontal, paraplegic body remains more or less tethered to the iron lung through which he breathes.
He writes by tapping keys with a device held in his mouth, and is dependent on caretakers pretty much around the clock if he is to survive.
But he has feeling all over his body, doesn’t know how much time he has left, and wants very badly to experience sex.
He seeks carnal knowledge by engaging the services of a professional sex surrogate named Cheryl Cohen Green, a married mom who explains to him that they will have no more than half-a dozen sessions so as to reduce the probability of inappropriate and unethical emotional involvement between therapist and client.
That’s the theory, anyway, one that does not console Cheryl’s husband, played by Adam Arkin, when he intercepts a love poem that O’Brien eventually sends to her.
Perhaps the most impressive achievement of British writer-director Ben Lewin (Paperback Romance; Georgia; The Favour, The Watch and the Very Big Fish), who had polio as a child and still uses crutches and braces, is the triumvirate of terrific performances he gets from his primary cast.
John Hawkes, who earned an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor for 2010’s Winter’s Bone but has never had this crucial or high-profile an assignment, disappears into the role and brings to the table a self-deprecating wit and charm, a seemingly lighthearted (although how could it be?) cynicism that’s tremendously endearing, while barely moving his contorted body throughout.
In support, Helen Hunt — who backed some distance away from the limelight following her Oscar win as Best Actress for As Good As It Gets in 1997 and her Emmy-winning run through the 90s as the lead in TV’s sitcom, Mad About You, then being more or less overexposed on the movie screen immediately thereafter — is equally superb doing wonders in a tricky role. And, speaking of overexposure, she seems astonishingly comfortable with the extensive – but in no way exploitational – nudity that’s called for as her thoughtful, pragmatic character devotes herself to O’Brien’s healing.
And the dependable William H. Macy, who excels as fictional Father Brendan, the parish priest to whom O’Brien turns for virtual permission to undertake his out-of-wedlock sexual journey, is wonderfully funny in his caring and compassionate endorsement of O’Brien’s attempt to know a woman in the biblical sense.
Lewin has adapted the magazine article, “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate” by O’Brien, who also wrote the memoir, How I Became a Human Being: A Disabled Man’s Quest for Independence, and has leavened his sad and tender, small-scale tale with a remarkable amount of unforced humor.
But it’s his handling, his showcasing, his trusting of this progression of affecting, splendidly acted two-character scenes – most with Hawkes and Hunt, many with Hawkes and Macy – that remind us of which movie effects are ultimately the most “special.”
So we’ll experience 3½ stars out of 4 for a deeply moving and disarmingly intimate sex-surrogacy drama, The Sessions. This acting clinic is sure to be a player at the next Oscar session.