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.
There are landmines a-plenty in this subject matter, and Lewin deserves credit for embracing O’Brien’s story with such genuine warmth and understanding. There’s an endearing purity of spirit to The Sessions that’s infectious; it adores and protects its characters, allowing the central relationship enough breathing room to develop organically. There’s not a mean or immature bone in the film’s body, and its portrait of sex is among of the most honest ever depicted. But it’s not about the function of Mark and Cheryl’s genitals so much as how they emotionally navigate their encounters and the issues they’re dealing with (he’s weighed down by insecurity and Catholic guilt while she’s trapped in an unsatisfying marriage to a dullard intellectual (Adam Arkin).
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.
Although the film is intimate in focus and ambition, there’s a real crowd-pleasing quality to its underdog story. We root for Mark and want to see him succeed and find peace. Sweet, winning and gentle, The Sessions is a fitting tribute to an intriguing man told with dignity, respect and, yes, love.
4 out of 5
*Originally printed in BeatRoute Magazine.