The Sessions Movie Review
By taking a sensitive, honest approach to this true story, breakthrough filmmaker Lewin both avoids sentimentality and keeps the focus on the inner lives of the central characters. He also somehow manages to make a movie about a sexual surrogate strongly involving: we are never even remotely tempted to giggle.
This is the story of Mark O'Brien (Hawkes), a journalist from Berkeley, California, who lives in an iron lung that he can only leave for a few hours a week. Paralysed from the neck down by polio as a young boy, Mark decides at age 38 that he wants to lose his virginity. Consumed by Catholic guilt about this desire, he consults his local priest (Macy), who says he deserves a pass on this one. So his no-nonsense assistant Vera (Bloodgood) finds him a surrogate in Cheryl (Hunt), who starts eight sessions that are designed to lead to sex. And as she gets to know Mark, Cheryl begins to let her guard down.
Lewin refuses to shy away from any aspect of this story, confronting everything in honest, sometimes uncomfortable ways that are never remotely sentimentalised. It would be easy to drift into syruppy schmaltz with this kind of material, but the script maintains a bracingly sharp wit, and the actors cleverly underplay every scene. This adds to the realism and helps us understand all of the people on-screen. Hawkes and Hunt are both transparent and revelatory, each in a difficult role that could have been much showier, but is stronger due to their restraint. Macy and Bloodgood are terrific as the sardonic supporting characters. And Marks (as another assistant) and Arkin (as Cheryl's understanding husband) add terrific layers to their much smaller roles.
Being a true story, the plot takes some turns that are not remotely movie-like, which highlights some controversial themes in ways that can't help but be inspirational. Thankfully, Lewin's delicate writing and directing never manipulate the emotions or try to wrestle a message out of Mark's life. Instead, we feel like we are observing a group of forceful, imaginative people trying the best they can to show human compassion to each other. And the most remarkable thing about the film is that we can identify with everyone on screen.