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Movie Review: The Sessions

October 26, 2012

The Sessions – A Fox Searchlight Release

Release Date: October 26th, 2012

Rated 14A for mature themes, sexual content and graphic nudity

Running time: 95 minutes

Ben Lewin (dir.)

Ben Lewin (screenplay)

Marco Beltrami (music)

John Hawkes as Mark O’Brien

Helen Hunt as Cheryl Cohen-Greene

William H. Macy as Father Brendan

Moon Bloodgood as Vera

Annika Marks as Amanda

Rhea Perlman as Mikvah Lady

W. Earl Brown as Rod

Rusty Schwimmer as Joan

©Fox Searchlight.  All Rights Reserved.

Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Helen Hunt) and Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) in The Sessions.

Our reviews below:


The Sessions Review By John C.

**** (out of 4)

There are so many ways that The Sessions could have become exploitative or melodramatic in the wrong hands, but writer and director Ben Lewin handles the material with such sensitivity that the film never hits a wrong note.  Based on a true story, the film recently premiered to one of the biggest and most emotional standing ovations I have ever experienced at the Toronto International Film Festival, and it deserved it every step of the way.

At 38 years old, Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) is still a virgin and lives much of his life through an iron lung, because he had polio as a child.  But with the support of understanding Catholic priest Father Brendan (William H. Macy) and kind sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Helen Hunt), he sets out to realize his goal of virginity lost.  There are some challenges for them to overcome, like finding a bed for their maximum of six two hour sessions and lengthening Mark’s physical reaction times past a few seconds.  But the sessions become deeply therapeutic as they allow him to accept his body in a way that he hasn’t been able to since before he became confined to the iron lung.

John Hawkes is essentially only able to act from the neck up and he delivers a miraculous performance that could only be described as stunning.  Managing to inject both humour and heartbreaking pathos to his portrayal of Mark O’Brien, it’s a performance that would have made the real person behind the character proud.  Helen Hunt delivers her best work to date, appearing emotionally and physically naked in front of the camera in a way that is nothing short of fearless.  William H. Macy brings such warmth to his role as the nonjudgmental priest, perfectly complimenting the other performances.

The sex scenes in The Sessions are explicit and all is bared in terms of nudity, including several fully frontal scenes with Helen Hunt.  But there is also a tenderness to the entire film that makes it feel deeply touching and real.  Will some unfortunately closed minded groups take issue with the open view of sexuality and abundant nudity in the film?  Maybe, but Ben Lewin smartly avoids potential controversy by telling the story with humanity and a deep respect for the characters.  As Father Brendan says to Mark, “I think you’ve done a great thing,” and it’s easy for the audience to understand why the priest would give this man his blessing to hire a sex surrogate and lose his virginity.

The screenplay makes touching use of Mark O’Brien’s real poetry and the entire film is edited in a way that comes together beautifully over the final few scenes.  With brilliant performances from John Hawkes, Helen Hunt and William H. Macy, The Sessions is an often funny and ultimately profoundly moving look at spirituality, sexuality and the need for those with disabilities to feel wanted.  This is one of the best movies of the year.


The Sessions Review by Erin V.  

**** (out of 4)

Based on the autobiographical writings of Mark O’Brien, The Sessions is about a man who at the age of 38 wants to lose his virginity.  The thing is, Mark (played by John Hawkes) had polio as a child, and as a result can’t move his muscles voluntarily from the neck down and lives a good portion of his life in an iron lung.  With the help of a sex therapist though, his wish may be possible.  Mark has a small but strong support network around him, including his local parish priest (William H. Macy), his caregivers, and finally the sex therapist Cheryl (Helen Hunt).

The performances by Macy, Hunt, and especially Hawkes, are amazing.  I would be surprised not to see some Oscar contention here.  Watching John Hawkes, it is amazing to think back and realize that throughout the whole performance he only really moves his head, because the performance is so completely whole.  Watching the film, we don’t see an actor, rather we completely believe this is Mark O’Brien.  And it makes the film a very connecting one.  The music (composed by Marco Beltrami) is also perfect, and hauntingly beautiful in the film at times.

In some ways, The Sessions is a hard film to explain – because it is about so much more than its description could ever say.  It is about life, living it, who we are, and how those around us shape and change us in beautiful ways.  Mark, as the film shows us, was not just a man who’s life had been shaped by polio, but also a journalist, a poet, and an adult with the same thoughts and feelings that the rest of us struggle with time to time in our lives.  The film is worth seeing on so many levels for those old enough to handle the subject matter.  It is a story of life and a journey of discovery, that features some of the best performances put to screen this year.  There are many moments here that will touch you.


The Sessions Review by Nicole

**** (out of 4)

Based on a true story, The Sessions raises an often forgotten yet very real issue, the sexuality of people with physical disabilities.  Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) lives alone, and the only physical intimacy he gets is from his personal support workers.  A childhood bout of polio has left him requiring an iron lung, and a gurney to get around places.  After falling in unrequited love with one of his caregivers, Mark longs for a normal, intimate relationship.

Through an organization for disability and sexuality, Mark is introduced to Cheryl (Helen Hunt), a sexual surrogate whose job is to have intercourse with disabled clients in order to prepare them for potential future relationships with other people.  Her limit of sexual sessions is six, as she cannot emotionally connect with clients.  Mark wants intimacy, but as a devout Catholic, he questions his wish for sexual intercourse outside of marriage.  He brings up his dilemma with the kindly parish priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy), who reassures Mark that “God will give you a free pass on this one.”  However, while the sessions go well, Mark and Cheryl can’t help but bring emotions into the mix, complicating the matter further.

The Sessions is a beautiful film.  Knowing many people with various special needs, I understand how hard it is for many to develop meaningful and normal relationships.  The film raises these issues in a sensitive and compassionate light.  Both John Hawkes and Helen Hunt are believable in their roles, acting with real emotion and sensitivity.  I was also impressed with William H. Macy’s depiction of the caring Father Brendan.  It is not very often that Catholic priests, let alone Christianity in general, are depicted in a positive, compassionate and very human way.  The Sessions raises moral and ethical questions, concluding that sometimes, in unusual circumstances, ethics have to be looked at case by case.

The Sessions is a funny, heartfelt and thought provoking film about humanity, feelings and the need for relationships.  This movie is definitely an Oscar contender, and a film worth seeing.


The Sessions Review by Maureen

**** (out of 4)

The Sessions is a powerful and touching true story of a man who, despite his polio keeping him bed-ridden, wants to have the basic human experience of love expressed through sexual activity.

Mark O’Brien (played extraordinarily well by John Hawkes) spends his days being moved around on a gurney by various personal support workers and his nights in an iron lung with only his cat to keep him company.  When Mark falls in love with one of his workers, the pretty Amanda (Annika Marks), he hopes the feeling is mutual and proposes marriage.  Being a strong Catholic, he feels the prospect of sex outside marriage would be wrong.  When Amanda turns down his proposal, Mark approaches his parish priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy) for advice.

The many scenes between Father Brendan and Mark in the church discussing whether or not God would be okay with Mark exploring his sexual feelings are touching, frequently funny and definitely thought provoking.  Through their on-going discussions, Mark comes to the conclusion that God has enough of a sense of humour to give him a free pass of sorts no matter what he decides.

When researching an article about physical disability and sexuality, Mark ends up with the name of a sexual surrogate, Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Helen Hunt) who specializes in unique cases.  After some discussion, it’s agreed that Mark would be eligible for up to six sessions with Cheryl to explore his body and sexual needs.  With the help of his worker Vera (Moon Bloodgood), and a physically challenged friend, Mark and Cheryl begin their sessions.

The sessions between Cheryl and Mark are fairly explicit yet beautifully done.  John Hawkes does an amazing job essentially acting from the neck up as a man who learns for the first time that the body he sees as broken is capable of giving and receiving pleasure with another human being.  The sessions go well until Cheryl and Mark begin to appreciate one another on a more personal level beyond the physical intimacy.  Cheryl is married with a teenage son and never gets involved with clients.  Mark continues to discuss his experience with Father Brendan and their conversations are touching and thought provoking.  The ending of the film is very touching.

The Sessions is a beautiful story about a complex subject.  The fact that this is based on a true story makes it all the more touching.  What makes the film so powerful are the incredible performances by John Hawkes, Helen Hunt and William H. Macy.  There isn’t a weak moment here.  Tastefully shot and with well written dialogue, The Sessions is one of the best films of 2012.  Director Ben Lewin should be proud and Mark O’Brien would be proud that his story has been tastefully told and hopefully more awareness of the needs of those who have physical disabilities will result from people seeing this wonderful film.


The Sessions Review by Tony

**** (out of 4)

The Sessions is based on the true story of Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) who at 38 years of age in 1988 has lived for over 30 years on a gurney due to childhood polio. Confined to an iron lung most of the day and night and always on a respirator, he has a normal sense of touch all over but no use of his muscles below the neck. Despite these challenges, with the aid of support workers he earned a degree from Berkeley, and is a successful poet, tapping out his words on a typewriter with a mouth stick. Confessing a desire to lose his virginity, with the blessing of his new parish priest (William H. Macy) Mark books several sessions with professional sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Helen Hunt). Despite the risk of transference, feelings developing between therapist and patient, she maintains professional detachment between her work and a happy marriage.

Mark O’Brien’s joy of life and poetry carry his story along with great sensitivity, particularly during the intimate scenes. Every detail in the script, cinematography, editing, and quiet background score perfectly complement the excellent acting by the whole leading and supporting cast. When Australian-born director Ben Lewin appeared with Hawkes and Hunt at the Toronto International Film Festival debut, it was apparent from his own braces that the discovery of this story was not entirely random. The stars related how the awkwardness of their first encounters was genuine since they had never met before filming.

As technology and media bring more people living with various handicaps into the mainstream, The Sessions stands out as a triumph of affirmation of our shared humanity.


Consensus: Based on a touching true story, director Ben Lewin’s The Sessions is an entertaining and deeply moving look at spirituality and sexuality that is carried by brilliant work from John Hawkes, Helen Hunt and William H. Macy.  **** (Out of 4)

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