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The Sessions

Starring John Hawkes, Helen Hunt and William H. Macy
Written for the Screen and Directed by Ben Lewin

IN SHORT: One of the best of the year. [Rated R for strong sexuality including graphic nudity and frank dialogue. 95 minutes]

PARENTS NOTE: Some matters of a sexual nature will be mentioned in this review. We'll keep it as PG as possible but, for those parents that read these things with their kids (and we get your emails when you complain...) read this solo. The Sessions is an adult film that deals with adult matters and it does so

Just after we dropped an email to our studio reps raving about this film, we saw its television commercial, written to make you think that The Sessions is a laugh out loud comedy. No. Period, No. It is also not the kind of "makes you want to blow your brains out" drama that a) we get this time of year and b) that a film about a man immobilized by polio would suggest (especially at this time of year).

What The Sessions is is a terrifically acted, very touching film that, frankly, we didn't know if we'd be able to sit through. We have our own medical disabilities that we deal with on a daily basis and we've been paralyzed (temporarily, thank God) three times, documented elsewhere on this site. Watching actors portray such things on screen triggers all sorts of emotional memories that, frankly, we'd prefer to be left alone. When all is said and done, we made it to the end of The Sessions, and we're more than pleased to give it our endorsement.

Polio, for most people under the age of 50, is something known only from reading about FDR in their schoolbooks. The story told in The Sessions is medically true, the subject of the film was struck by the poliovirus at age six in 1956, at a time when the first vaccines were just being introduced in America. It was just his sheer bad luck to be in the last generation affected by poliovirus.

In The Sessions we meet Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes). Mr. O'Brien has spent most of his life inside an "iron lung", a massive machine which enables him to breathe. O'Brien cannot move from the neck down but -- this is the difficult part -- he is physically but not medically paralyzed. His brain cannot send messages to his muscles to flex but his nerves work. For you, dear readers: have you ever had an itch somewhere on your back that you just couldn't reach? That, as hard as you may try to scratch it, you can't? Now consider what that kind of feeling would be like if you had no ability to move your arms and hands or twist your body to get at that itch. Think about it for a couple of seconds. That is how Mark O'Brien lived his entire life.

The Sessions is set in the year 1988, when Mark is age 38. He has attendants to watch over him for most of his waking hours.. He is able to spend an hour or two outside of the lung, pushed about on a medical table called a gurney, with the help of portable oxygen devices and the muscles of one of those aforementioned attendants. Professionally, he is a poet, using a stick held between his lips to type on a keyboard next to his head. A magazine article he wrote about the events you will see in this film was the inspiration for the film.

Sensing that his body is nearing the end of its run, Mark decides that he doesn't want to shuffle off the mortal coil with his sexual virginity intact. As a devout Catholic, he asks the new priest at his parish, Father Brendan (William H. Macy), for permission to have sex outside of marriage. Brendan's carefully measured reply ends with: "Jesus would say 'go for it.'" one of the best lines in the film -- and so O'Brien asks his daytime attendant Vera (Moon Bloodgod) for help. Vera recommends a professional sex surrogate named Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt). Once they are introduced, we watch a verbal dance as the meaning of "surrogate" is differentiated from the common assumption of "hooker." It isn't as simple as defining the relationship as "you only get six sessions and that's it" (though that's part of it). There's a whole lot of psychological stuff in the mix, as we see Cheryl dictating notes about each session (for whom, we don't know), much as any therapist would. Cheryl's husband Josh (Adam Arkin) is present but fairly oblivious to his wife's work.

Mark's emotional problems, he tends to fall in love with every female attendant, sexual or not, that we meet, aren't fully addressed by the film. Cheryl reveals some of her personal issues -- a religious conversion to make her husband's grandmother happy -- and a friendship unexpectedly blooms between the pair. Not that a friendship is going to go anywhere and, given that we've only covered the very basics and plot for half of the film, you are going to have to drop the cash for the rest.

The Sessions is a tremendously moving film. It addresses sexuality on a strictly adult level. There is nudity and there is pain and anyone who is not moved by this film just has no heart.

On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Ten Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to The Sessions, he would have paid . . .


The $9* rating is given equally to all films that possess that certain "statue worthy" element that becomes important as the year wraps up. The Sessions is awards-worthy in many categories.

We've been writing reviews for twenty years now. Some years we see a performance and we write the name of the performer on a list and that's pretty much it for the year.Earlier this year we had assigned Best Actor to Jack Black for his role in Bernie. Lucky for us, critics also have a thing called "Breakthrough Performance" which can be used to cover out butts when we see something like The Sessions . . . Actor John Hawkes' performance isn't going to be topped this year. Nor is William H. Macy's portrayal of the priest out of his depth in his supporting role.

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