Last year, when I told friends about a little film called “The Artist,” they scoffed at seeing a silent picture starring anonymous French actors. But once they gave in and went, they couldn’t thank me enough. This year, that movie is “The Sessions,” a small, unassuming indie about a disabled man losing his virginity to a sex surrogate. See, told ya you wouldn’t be interested. But, wait, it’s not as heavy and sappy as you might think. In truth, it’s pretty darn funny – and touching (pun intended) in all the right places.
It’s been almost two months since I went, and I still get verklempt just thinking about it. Can’t say that about a lot of movies. But then a lot of movies don’t have at their core a performance as rich and soulful as the one John Hawkes summons as our 38-year-old virgin, Mark O’Brien, a man you owe it to yourself to get to know. Never heard of him? I hadn’t either. And I probably should have considering the Boston-born writer was the subject of an Oscar-winning short called “Breathing Lessons.” But, because I hadn’t, it only made “The Sessions” (formerly titled “The Surrogate”) all the more rewarding.
The man was a true inspiration. Not for the way he dealt with the ravages of polio, a disease that at age 6 claimed most of his muscles and left him unable to breathe without the assistance of an iron lung. But because of his nothing-is-impossible attitude toward everything from his career as an essayist and poet, to his enormous capacity to love… and be loved, which is where the surrogate comes in.
In real life, her name was Cheryl Cohen. But in “The Sessions,” you’ll recognize her as Helen Hunt, albeit significantly less clothed than you’re used to seeing. And, believe me, there’s plenty to see – and I’m not just talking about her curvaceous body. That’s just a perk. The pleasure is in watching a too-long-forgotten actress bare her soul – along with everything else – in a performance that transcends brilliant, as she transports Cheryl over a riveting arc from cold-blooded clinician to hot-blooded woman, reanimating a passion that had become as paralyzed as Mark’s body. It’s positively orgasmic, and sure to land her in bed with a little bald fellow named Oscar.
That same guy is also likely to make overtures toward Hawkes, who reaches the pinnacle of a 25-year career largely forged in obscurity. The irony is that in playing Mark, a man who could only move his head, and a certain other body part, he’s even less recognizable – scrawny, supine and able to act with only his eyes and face. But for a star excluded from expelling anything more than a twitch, Hawkes sure does move you. And what stirs you most is the effortless way he’s able to convey Mark’s compassion for people far more fortunate than himself. In scene after scene, you marvel at Mark’s ability to heal his healers, from his devoted caregiver, Vera (a terrific Moon Bloodgood), to his red-faced priest, Father Brendan (a wonderfully deadpan William H. Macy), to whom Mark hilariously recounts his experiences with Cheryl, always being sure to ask if God will approve of his carnal endeavors.
God may not, but you sure do, as you fall deeper and deeper in love with Mark’s unbridled zest for life. Most of that is Hawkes, but writer-director Ben Lewin, who, like O’Brien, was stricken at a young age by polio, earns high marks for simply not letting his film fall into a treacly, disease-of-the-week trap. In an interview last month, Lewin told me he stumbled upon Mark’s story (chronicled in a 1990 O’Brien essay titled “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate”) while surfing for handicapped porn sites. This pursuit was in preparation for an Australian sitcom he was developing called “The Gimp,” a show about a man using his disability as a means of procuring sex. As you might ascertain, Lewin is not the sentimental type, which explains why “The Sessions” never trades in cheap emotions…only heart, which this remarkable movie has in spades. It might not be as stimulating as sex, but it sure feels good.
THE SESSIONS (R for strong sexuality, including graphic nudity and frank dialogue.) Cast includes John Hawkes, Helen Hunt and William H. Macy. Written and directed by Ben Lewin. 4 stars out of 4.