TIFF12: The Sessions (2012)

Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) seeks spiritual counsel from his priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy). There are things I really like about The Sessions and things about it that are undeniably mediocre. It has great performances and is quite funny, but it’s also sentimental, lazily shot, and completely relies upon its “based on the triumphant true story” subtitle. Writer and director Ben Lewin knew he had found ripe material when he read Mark O’Brien’s newspaper article “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate,” but the movie sometimes feels like a newspaper article or a daytime television special about a disabled person who overcomes adversity.

The Sessions is the story of real-life poet Mark O’Brien (played by the remarkable John Hawkes), who lives in an iron lung because he had gotten polio as a child and the disease left him too weak to use his body. At 38, Mark is a writer for the local newspaper and a devout Catholic who shows up for confession on his gurney. However, he is also a virgin and equates his virginity with powerlessness. He still sees himself as a child, and worse, feels that others view him as one too.

In response to his frustration, Mark seeks the guidance of his priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy), in hiring a sex surrogate to help him lose his virginity. Initially appalled, Father Brendan ultimately feels that God will have mercy on Mark and forgive his actions. With his priest’s acceptance, Mark starts seeing Cheryl (Helen Hunt), a professional sex surrogate, who, over six sessions, helps Mark experience the sexual acts he could never seek out on his own.

There are two surprising things about this film. First is that it’s funny. The plot description doesn’t sound comedic, but The Sessions is definitely a comedy. Lewin writes Mark as a self-deprecating man with an enormous amount of wit. He approaches everything as a joke because it’s the only way he can handle the ridiculous circumstances of his life. Whenever the film is in danger of dipping into sappy sentimentality, Mark’s wit undercuts it. Even the darkest scene in the film is injected with some humour. This is not a dour film about pitying the main character.

The other surprisingly thing about The Sessions is how frank it is about sexuality and religion, two things that are often connected, but rarely in such a positive and comedic manner. Refreshingly, there’s no judgment in the film’s handling of either subject. The film celebrates Mark’s loss of virginity, just like it never scorns his devout Catholicism. Perhaps most surprisingly, the film offers an extremely positive portrait of a priest in Macy’s Father Brendan. Father Brendan is such an understanding and caring priest, it’s almost jarring. Then you remind yourself that this is an independent film, and it makes sense, because Hollywood would never be so gracious with a Catholic.

This is an actor’s showcase, and the performances are very good. Hawkes is particularly excellent. He is so limited physically, but there’s no limit to his emotion. Also, for an actor who has becomes typecast as a terrifying villain (Winter’s BoneMartha Marcy May Marlene), here he proves a versatile, chameleonic actor. Hunt is also quite good. People are hailing her performance as daring and fearless because she’s a middle-aged actress who goes nude here, and I guess going fully nude for a film when you’re in your 40s is daring. But it’s Macy who really gives the fearless performance, unwittingly subverting one of the most entrenched stereotypes in modern cinema without going flashy or over-the-top.

The film was a big hit at Sundance, winning the Audience Prize and the Ensemble Acting Award. Hawkes will definitely get nominated for Best Actor, and Hunt will probably pick up a Best Supporting Actress nod as well. The film may even slip into the Best Picture race. It’s a crowd-pleaser, which is nothing to scoff at. The crowd at TIFF loved it and was at tears by the end. I was less moved, but pretty darn entertained, and impressed that it could move a crowd to tears without blatant manipulation.

The Sessions is conventional and light and feels like a TV movie. But it has better intentions and performances than any TV movie I can think of.

The Sessions (2012)

Written and directed by Ben Lewin; based off “On Seeking a Sex Surrogate” by Mark O’Brien; starring John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy, Moon Bloodgood, and Annika Marks.

6 out of 10