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Film Review: “The Sessions” Is A Raw, Wry Look At Disability And Love

Elizabeth Johnson |
October 17, 2012 | 8:57 p.m. PDT

Senior Entertainment Editor

John Hawkes as Mark O'Brien in "The Sessions" (via Fox Searchlight)
John Hawkes as Mark O'Brien in "The Sessions" (via Fox Searchlight)
A paralyzed poet who spends most of his days in an iron lung after a childhood bout of polio looks to lose his virginity at 38. The premise of “The Sessions” is lofty, ridiculous, even. But what makes it incredible is that it’s true. Even more impressive are the wit and optimism that are brought to this goodhearted film.

Based off the autobiographical writings of a Northern California-based journalist and poet, “The Sessions” tells the story of Mark O’Brien, who lives his life with humor and vigor despite being essentially paralyzed from the head down.

O’Brien, played with aplomb by John Hawkes (Academy Award-winning actor of Winter’s Bone) seeks the help of a sex surrogate to have his first sexual experience. Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt) steps in to fill the role, forging a bond with O’Brien while helping him explore his sexuality as well as his feelings about relationships, god and more.

Throughout the film, O’Brien also receives the advice of his priest and confidant, Father Brendan (William H. Macy), who offers pragmatic wisdom while humorously supporting O’Brien’s decision to pay for sex out of wedlock (albeit in a therapeutic context).

While the topics addressed in “The Sessions” are ambitious – ranging from religion to disability – the film manages to illustrate one man’s struggle with finding love and compassion in a way that is both universal and singular, but never clichéd or maudlin.

Helen Hunt plays sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene (via Fox Searchlight)
Helen Hunt plays sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene (via Fox Searchlight)
One of the film’s strengths is screenwriter and director Ben Lewin’s insistence not to shy away from uncomfortable moments, instead taking an unflinching look at the most honest aspects of O’Brien’s life: the quiet solitude of nights spent alone in his iron lung; the pure awkwardness of a disabled man’s first experience of intercourse.

Hawkes and Hunt can be credited with delivering performances that are not only emotionally impressive, but also physically. As O’Brien spends time outside of his iron lung lying on a gurney, the demands of Hawkes’ role are evident. Hunt, too, brings realism to the tricky logistics of the film’s sexual moments. 

“The Sessions” could easily become mired in questions of life and love. But an intelligent script and well-shaped characters ensure that O’Brien’s saga is one of wry self-degradation and light-hearted honesty.

"The Sessions" opens in limited release Oct. 19, and opens in more theaters Oct. 26. See showtimes here.

Reach Senior Entertainment Editor Elizabeth Johnson here. Follow her on Twitter here.



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