If sexual intercourse is meant to be enjoyed only within the confines of holy matrimony, what is one to do if all hope of a romantic future has evaporated? That’s the haunting question plaguing Mark O’Brien, a devout Catholic writer and poet, whose childhood battle with polio has left him almost completely immobile. Now 38-years-old, a virgin, and yearning to experience that most wondrous human connection, he decides, in a moment of courage, to turn to a trained sex surrogate for relief.
That’s the curious premise of writer/director Ben Lewin’s The Sessions, a frank, funny and heartfelt new drama inspired by the real life O’Brien’s 1990 article “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate.” Featuring John Hawkes, in a physically transformative performance of fascinating soulfulness and vulnerability, the film presents its gurney-bound Berkeley, California protagonist as a man desperately in love with the notion of finding true love. Rebuffed in an attempt to woo his cherished caretaker, he turns to matter-of-fact surrogate Cheryl (a radiant, fearless Helen Hunt), who agrees to treat him over six expert erotic sessions. However, as the therapy bumpily proceeds, feelings become complicated, and the two unlikely bedmates find their professional association spilling over into their unfulfilling private lives.
Running a breezy 95 minutes, The Sessions is frequently hilarious. Lewin’s script recognizes our human impulse to turn into stand-up comedians in the face of personal embarrassment, and Hawkes’ deftly delivers awkward wisecracks that are both humorous and insightful. He’s also often paired brilliantly with William H. Macy, as O’Brien’s priest, who drolly struggles to walk the line between spiritual advisor and encouraging friend. Occasionally Lewin goes a little too far for a laugh – silly conversations between Mark’s new caregiver (Moon Bloodgood) and a suspicious hotel clerk (Ming Lo) are gratingly cutesy – yet even still the quality of the hits far outweigh the odd misses.
4 out of 5
*Originally printed in BeatRoute Magazine.