Editor’s note: This film was reviewed at Sundance in January when it was titled The Surrogate. This review has been updated to reflect the title change.
The real-life story of how a polio-stricken man contrived to lose his virginity under the expert auspices of a sex surrogate has been turned into surprisingly accessible and emotionally effective mainstream material in The Sessions. At once entirely frank and downright cuddly in the way it deals with the seldom-visited subject of the sex lives of people with disabilities, this well-acted and constructed film will, at the very least, turn the spotlight on this unusual topic and, at the most, could be massaged by an inspired distributor into a considerable commercial hit.
Based on the life of the late self-described poet/journalist Mark O’Brien, whose physical incapacities required him to write by tapping on keys with a long stick he held in his mouth, the film bears an obvious kinship with The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. But, auguring much more favorably for it in the marketplace is the similarity of its structure and emotional current to The King’s Speech; like that royal hit, this story centers on a man overcoming an extreme handicap through an unlikely tutor, resulting in a breakthrough that is comparably emotional and decidedly more intimate.
Using interior monologues to reveal the inner life of an essentially immobile man and interlacing levels that invoke religion, medicine, sex, psychology and art, writer-director Ben Lewin easily establishes audience sympathy for Mark (John Hawkes), a painfully thin man with an oddly twisted body who requires confinement to an iron lung for all but three or four hours per day. To get around, he’s wheeled on a gurney by a succession of assistants, principally Vera (the striking Moon Bloodgood). At 38, Mark figures that he’s “probably getting close to my due date” and realizes that he’s never going to have sex unless he does something about it soon.
He’s also a religious man, a Catholic with faith “in a God with a sense of humor, a wicked sense of humor.” For guidance, he can’t have had much better luck than in his church’s new long-haired priest, Father Brendan (a droll William H. Macy), who listens with barely disguised interest to Mark’s confessions of sexual desire and his requests for advice on the church’s view of his intentions. The priest’s considered opinion is that God will look the other way.
This being Berkeley 1988, women who work themselves sex surrogates are not impossible to find, though Mark lucks out in locating one as articulate, sensitive and in such great physical shape as Cheryl (Helen Hunt). To the plausible question of what the difference is between a sex therapist and a common prostitute, the married Cheryl explains that, while a prostitute wants return business, sex therapists limit their number of sessions; in her case, there will be six.
At their first encounter, Cheryl strips naked and commences body awareness exercises designed to relax the monumentally nervous Mark. However uncertain he is, and no matter that he repeatedly gives new meaning to the concept of premature ejaculation, Cheryl is reassuring and positive, accustoming him to her body, spelling things out and solving the not inconsiderable issue of how they might eventually achieve normal intercourse given his tortured body configuration.
While Hawkes’ ever-chatty Mark remains at the center of the story, Hunt’s Cheryl takes the wheel during the crucial stretch of the therapy sessions. Nude much of the time, the actress’ lack of self-consciousness matches her character’s verbal frankness. Toward the end of their time together, Cheryl experiences an unanticipated surge of feeling that she needs to check, while Mark’s emotional/sexual breakthrough has a result he only could have dreamed about.
Through it all, Mark keeps revealing everything to his priest, whose confessionals are distractingly held right in the middle of the large church for all present to see and overhear. For her part, Cheryl is preparing to convert to Judaism, which occasions a ritual cleansing bath during which the assisting woman (Rhea Perlman) cheerfully comments upon how comfortable Cheryl is about her body, unlike most of the others.
Cheerful, in fact, is the operative word here, along with an omnipresent feeling of goodwill. There are no naysayers, no chastisers, no disapproving ninnies who think Mark ought to behave himself. Love and understanding are at the core of virtually everyone and everything here, which does rather give The Sessions the status of a feel-good fairytale. But most decisively, in audience terms, it argues in favor of living a full life, whatever one’s personal constraints, of not being intimidated by societal or religious dogma or, most of all, by one’s fears.
From a creative and professional point of view, there is further inspiration to be had by the fact that Lewin, who has had a long British and American television career and has directed a few little-seen features, at age 65 appears to be the oldest filmmaker to have ever launched a new film in the U.S. competition at Sundance. In his story, too, lies a comparison to that of David Seidler, the seventy-something writer of The King’s Speech.
Hawkes’ full-bodied vocal and emotional characterization stands in stark contrast to his frail corporal presence. Hunt’s performance may be physically bold but is equally marked by its maturity and composure.
Production values are strong, led by Geoffrey Simpson’s lustrous cinematography. Marco Beltrami’s score tilts too much toward the precious, providing emotional cues when more restraint would have been welcome.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Dramatic Competition)
Production: Such Much Films, Rhino Films
Cast: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy, Moon Bloodgood, Annika Marks, Adam Arkin, Rhea Perlman, W. Earl Brown, Robin Weigart
Director-screenwriter: Ben Lewin
Producers: Judi Levine, Stephen Nemeth
Executive producers: Maurice Silman, Julius Colman, Douglas Blake
Director of photography: Geoffrey Simpson
Production designer: John Mott
Costume designer: Justine Seymour
Editor: Lisa Bromwell
Music: Marco Beltrami