Movie Review: The Sessions

Helen Hunt and John Hawkes in “The Surrogate”

By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)

It’s no wonder that The Sessions (formerly entitled The Surrogate) garnered two Sundance awards (Audience Award – U.S. Dramatic, and Special Jury Prize for Ensemble Acting). It’s also no wonder that this film set the bar for Sundance 2012 film acquisitions, with Fox Searchlight paying out $6 million for worldwide distribution. Because this fact-based narrative, based on the bold decision of 38-year-old Berkeley journalist and poet Mark O’Brien to experience sexual love – his affliction with polio and confinement to an iron lung notwithstanding – is nothing short of magnificent.

Formidable subject matter aside, this story could have easily turned into a maudlin treatise on how polio victims are humans, too. But guided by filmmaker Ben Lewin’s deft, light handling, John Hawkes’ Mark is an eloquent and remarkably funny human being who yearns for love just as much as the next fellow. The fact that he’s imprisoned in an iron lung, paralyzed from the neck down (allowed a few short hours of freedom a day via a portable respirator), certainly makes his existence much more challenging than the norm. But the focus stays on the man, rather than the machine. (If this story sounds familiar, Jessica Yu’s 1996 documentary on Mark O’Brien entitled Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien won the Oscar for Best Short.)

Having made impressive splashes as a charismatic cult leader in 2011’s Martha Marcy May Marlene, a dangerous meth addict with an unexpected soft spot for his niece in Winter’s Bone (earning him Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor), and the ever-optimistic yet shrewd Sol Star in HBO’s Deadwood, John Hawkes adds to his formidable resume as Mark, The Sessions‘ heart and soul. Adopting a feeble voice, and relying on a large piece of uncomfortable foam (nicknamed “The Torture Ball”) to contort his spine, he undergoes a physical manifestation reminiscent of Daniel Day Lewis’ Christy Brown in My Left Foot. His face registers everything: sagacity, longing, wit. We love this man for his indomitable spirit to take life head on, no matter his terror, fear of rejection and the ever-present shadow of death that mindfully holds him in a tight embrace … much tighter than any lover could.

A polio survivor himself, Lewin hadn’t helmed a feature since 1994’s Paperback Romance. When he inadvertently discovered O’Brien’s article “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate,” he was inspired, saying: “I felt that if I could do on film what he had done to me with his writing, then I could potentially deliver something powerful.”

(l to r) William H. Macy, John Hawkes in “The Surrogate”

And so he does. But rather than a general biopic, Lewin focuses on Mark’s decision to lose his virginity by seeking the help of a sexual surrogate. The time is 1988, and the place is Berkeley, California. Keeping to the Northern California vibe of the day, Mark’s new priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy) wears his hair long and drinks beer during his off-hours. However, he still struggles with the concept of Mark exploring his sexuality outside of the marriage bed. In praying to Jesus Christ for guidance, Brendan ultimately concludes: “In my heart, I feel he’d give us a free pass on this one.” The relationship between Mark and Brendan is the spine of the piece, allowing the human comedy to flourish organically. The hesitant beginnings of their colloquy, framed by the formality of the Catholic confessional, turn into real conversations between two close friends, the priest evolving from Father to brother.

As the priest turned intimate friend, Macy lifts the film with a marvelous humor, mining his conflicts with expert comic timing. Helen Hunt completes the unique trio as sexual surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene. (The real-life Greene acted as consultant during the making of this film). Hunt is superb in her rendition of the surrogate, juggling her clinical duties while stark naked, maintaining a gentle yet authoritative air … all the while fighting the fact that she just may be falling in love with her patient.

The genius of this movie is a combination of a beautifully written script, sensitive direction and brilliant performances. As a small independent film, The Sessions is yet one more reminder that excellent films don’t always have to rely on multi-million dollar budgets and CGI effects by the boatload to guarantee a worthy cinematic footprint.

Whether The Sessions garners well-deserved nominations by the end of this year remains to be seen. In any event, awards or no, there are few films that cause us to fall in love with the widescreen all over again. This is most certainly one of them.


Rating on a scale of 5 catholic tastes: 5

Release date: October 19, 2012 (ltd.)
Written and Directed by: Ben Lewin
Cast: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy, Moon Bloodgood, Annika Marks, Adam Arkin
Rating: R
Running Time: 95 minutes

About Kimberly Gadette

Film critic Kimberly Gadette, born and raised in movie-centric L.A., believes celluloid may very well be a part of her DNA. Having received her BA and MFA from UCLA's School of Theater, Film & Television, she spent many of her formative years as an actress (film, tv, commercials, stage) before she literally changed perspective, finding a whole new POV from the other side of the camera. You can find her last 500+ reviews on Rotten Tomatoes ( Other than taking the occasional side trip to Cannes or Sundance, you can find her at the movies ... sitting in the dark as usual.