Few movies have the right ingredients to combine real-life events and genuine emotion without coming off like a sappy, made-for-TV movie. The recent Sundance hit The Sessions (formerly known as The Surrogate) has these skills firmly in place and a large part of that is due to its talented cast which includes John Hawkes, Helen Hunt and William H. Macy.
Hawkes in particular has been generating Oscar heat since the film’s debut in January at the Sundance Film Festival, and while Oscar talk back then may have seemed premature by some, a second look at the film proves that all accolades are completely justified. As an actor, Hawkes is primarily known for disappearing into complicated villains in movies like Winter’s Bone and Martha Marcy Mae Marlene, but his amazing range has resulted in an Oscar nomination that he hopes to double for this current performance.
In The Sessions he headlines as Mark O’Brien, a real-life polio patient living his life in the Bay Area under the constant help of an iron lung. His handicap is a hurdle in many obvious ways but Mark’s outlook is to stay positive despite life’s pitfalls. With this optimistic attitude he’s willed himself to do one seemingly impossible task: lose his virginity. After all, having sex under such unique conditions could prove tricky no matter how optimistic you are. But after Mark consults his priest for advice (played by a whimsical William H. Macy), the road to sexual enlightenment leads our curious lead to a sexual surrogate.
This woman is far from the lewd and overtly sexual image most men might think of when they hear the words “sexual surrogate,” in fact she’s the opposite. As played by Helen Hunt, this surrogate we come to know as Cheryl doesn’t do the clichéd things we expect from these types of situations. She doesn’t run away in horror at the sight of Mark in his iron lung and she is most of all, non-judgmental and sympathetic. That overt frankness cuts through the kind of lazy storytelling lesser films would’ve used to shamelessly butter up their audience.
The Sessions earns its emotional payoff in its direct and honest portrayal of two people experiencing life in a completely new way. For Mark, sex is everywhere, and the ability to finally rejoice in that experience despite his handicap is a risk worth taking. Cheryl on the other hand is open and liberated in her meetings with Mark. This isn’t just a job for her; she finds genuine comfort in helping this man and it shows in Hunt’s understated performance.
The Oscar talk for The Sessions and its three leads has been stirring since Sundance and shows no signs of slowing down. Hunt and Macy give warm and heartfelt performances but this is Hawkes’ movie. Everything from his voice to his body language gradually show an experienced actor disappearing into a role without it being deliberate. Expect to hear more about this film and its trio of actors as the film slowly begins to expand to theatres next month.
Rated: R (for strong sexuality including graphic nudity and frank dialogue)
The Sessions is scheduled for release October 19, 2023, and was screened at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival.