Sex sells…but who’s buying?
For Mark O’Brien , life couldn’t have been easy. After contracting polio at the age of six, he became paralyzed from the neck down and spent the majority of his down time confined inside an iron lung. But if actor John Hawkes’ portrayal of the late poet/journalist is any indication, his pain was overshadowed by his enduring wit and venerable romanticism.
“The Sessions” picks up Mark’s story in 1988, and after 38 years of being a stranger to the world of intimacy, he finally decides it’s time to “do the deed.” However, his choice of means is anything but conventional.
Enter Cheryl Cohen Greene — played by an always-welcome Helen Hunt — a professional sex surrogate. Hunt might not be as much of a household name as she was nearly a decade ago, but here she doesn’t hold anything back as evidenced by the character’s abundant full-frontal nude scenes in her attempts to break Mark out of his virginal shell.
The two wind up engaging in what’s sure to be some of the most awkward pillow talk ever, but clothed or not, Hawkes and Hunt’s onscreen chemistry proves to be surprisingly relatable, especially for a film about sex between individuals who couldn’t be more different from each other.
Cheryl doesn’t appear to have any serious qualms about her chosen career path, despite also having a somewhat-deadbeat husband and teenage son to look after. Mark’s insecurities don’t need to be explained proper, yet it’s a wicked sense of humor that keeps him going.
Even as he’s being pushed around on a gurney through the Berkeley, Calif. suburbs, his sharp tongue seemingly lets the audience know that feelings of sympathy are appreciated, but for the most part unnecessary.
Hawkes certainly has no problem asserting himself as a worthy contender for Oscar gold, nailing O’Brien’s heavy — albeit fatigued — Boston accent in a manner that does more than just emphasize physical misgivings. It provides a glimpse into the mind of a man whose inspiring optimism and dedication can reach beyond those who never get up from a horizontal position.
Writer-director Ben Lewin does a bang-up job of adapting O’Brien’s 1990 essay “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate.” A polio survivor himself, it wouldn’t be fair to question his vision even if a few intriguing subplots go unexplored. Hunt has a shot at her second gold statuette as well, and the vastly underrated William H. Macy stands out as Father Brendan , the bohemian priest who probably won’t be receiving praise from the Catholic Church anytime soon.
“The Sessions” is a drama with a light heart, and that’s enough to keep serious viewers entertained for the film’s 95-minute duration. It presents the subject of sex in a sophisticated fashion, something that seems to be all but gone from modern cinema.
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