Boston born poet and journalist Mark O’Brien is the inspiration for Ben Lewin’s latest film The Sessions. Following a crippling attack of Polio as a child O’Brien lives his life mostly confined to the restrictions of an iron lung. The Sessions follows O’Brien’s autobiographical writings of his sexual coming of age.
In 1988, at the age of 38 Mark O’Brien (John Hawkins) decides to lose his virginity. Restricted by his inability to move anything but his head he seeks the help of professional sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Helen Hunt).
In several sessions Cheryl engages with Mark physically and helps him discover and understand his own sexuality. To better understand these sexual encounters Mark seeks the advice of Father Brendan (William H Macy) and in a series of “confessions” he describes his experiences. These frank discussions between Mark and the often dumbfounded priest are tender, honest and quite funny.
Luckily The Sessions is never overly sentimental, gimmicky or affected. This is mainly due to the combination of superb acting and the natural flow of the storytelling. Hawkes excels at portraying the immobile O’Brien, with his head always tilted, his back constantly uncomfortably arched he shows all emotions in his face. Never going overboard but playing O’Brien with an appropriate mixture of sincerity, naivety and sense of humour.
But Hunt in the role of Cheryl is no less impressive. Hunt plays Cheryl as a strong, independent, intelligent woman, undoubtedly comfortable in her own body and very aware of her own imperfections and desires.
The Sessions is quite a special film, a story beautifully told, never saccharine or condescending but tender, honest and very real. It really is no wonder that it won both the Audience and the Special Jury Prize at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. Sadly with staggered and limited release it could be quickly overlooked.