By William Wolf


Mark “The Sessions” as the most mature, daring and intelligently candid film of the year thus far. Based on a true story, it deals with a highly sensitive subject with rare boldness, leavened with humor. Above all, there are the superb performances by John Hawkes and Helen Hunt, and especially in Hunt’s case, bravery in which she unabashedly appears in full nudity and gets into sexual practice and positioning that is utterly rare for a major actress. There is also candor in the dialogue concerning sex.

Credit writer-director Ben Lewin with approaching the idea of sexual surrogacy with delicacy but also with the frankness required. The situation is doubly sensitive because it involves a man who is partially paralyzed as a result of having had polio and lives in an iron lung. Mark O’Brien, movingly played by John Hawkes in an extraordinarily demanding role, can only escape the iron lung for about four hours at a time. He considers himself a poet and writer, but has to tap out words with a stick that he holds in his mouth.

Before he can go through with having sex with a surrogate, he wants approval from his priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy), with whom he has developed a close relationship in tune with his religious feelings. There is humor in Mark’s discussions with Father Brendan, given a sympathetic, sincere and understanding portrayal by Macy. On the one hand bestowing his permission for Mark’s desire to experience sex with a surrogate goes against his religion. But as a friend, not as a priest, Father Brendan’s understanding of Mark’s deep need to lose his virginity leads him to tell Mark to go for it.

Facilitating the “it” is Hunt as Cheryl, and Hunt establishes a thoroughly professional demeanor. When she suggests they get undressed, the tone is akin to what might happen in a doctor’s office. But it actually occurs in the apartment of an acquaintance of Mark and he is taken there by his provider. Cheryl’s technique is to proceed step by step, to get Mark relaxed and over his discomfort, to initiate an encounter gradually and to finally get him erect enough to penetrate her. There is gentle humor as well as anxiety in all of the explicitness.

Of course, Mark starts to want more than just his satisfaction--to be able to give Cheryl an orgasm, As one might expect, during the sessions she becomes attracted to Mark for his bravery and his wining personality, and that presents a problem. She must maintain her emotional distance, and she also has a home life with a husband, and it is not surprising that her profession can create domestic tension.

Gradually, we see this experience for Mark helping to build his self esteem and opening him to the possibility of a real relationship where no surrogate is required. Supporting cast members are excellent and the screenplay sets up amusing situations that lighten the film without demeaning it. I can’t recall anything like this film, and all concerned are to be commended for tackling the subject with such taste and forthrightness. A Fox Searchlight Release


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