out of Five
Running time: 95
Hugely enjoyable, warm-hearted and frequently laugh-out-loud funny disability drama with a superb script and a pair of terrific performances from John Hawkes and Helen Hunt.
What's it all about?
Written and directed by Ben Lewin, The Sessions (which played at Sundance under the title The Surrogate) is based on a true story and stars John Hawkes as 38 year old poet and journalist Mark O'Brien, who's paralysed from the neck down and confined to an iron lung due to polio. Able to survive without the iron lung for a few hours each day, Mark travels around on a gurney with the help of his no-nonsense assistant Vera (Moon Bloodgood) and pays frequent visits to kindly priest Father Brendan (William H Macy).
After being commissioned to write an article on the subject, Mark decides to enlist the services of professional (and happily married) sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Helen Hunt), in order to lose his virginity. Cheryl duly proscribes a series of six sessions in order to prevent Mark from becoming too emotionally attached, but the pair spark an unexpectedly strong connection and she begins to wonder if she should cut their sessions short.
John Hawkes was inexplicably denied an Oscar nomination, but he nonetheless delivers one of the best performances of the year as Mark, investing him with a warmth and humour that is extremely engaging. Similarly, Helen Hunt (who deservedly did receive an Oscar nomination) puts in a career-best turn as Cheryl, committing fully to the physicality of the role and striking a powerful chemistry with Hawkes that is genuinely moving. In addition, there's enjoyable support from Macy and Bloodgood, both of whom have some very funny scenes involving their decidedly different reactions to Mark's situation.
From the synopsis of the film alone, you could be forgiven for thinking that The Sessions is one of those Oscar-baiting disability dramas (think My Left Foot) aimed squarely at the tear ducts. However, Lewin (who's had his own battles with polio) and his cast get the tone exactly right, balancing realism, raw emotion and disarmingly frank physicality (particularly in Hunt's case) with a surprising and charming amount of warmth and humour, without ever slipping into sugary sentimentality.
The Sessions is a hugely enjoyable, powerfully emotional drama told with warmth and sensitivity, thanks to a superb script and terrific performances from Hawkes and Hunt. Highly recommended.