The original title of the movie The Sessions, opening in select cities this weekend, was The Surrogate, referring to Helen Hunt’s character, Cheryl Cohen Greene, a professional sex surrogate. And it was changed rightfully so because the movie is not specifically focused on this woman, but about the profound time she spends with journalist and poet Mark O’Brien - played masterfully by Oscar® nominee John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone) – a man suffering the debilitating effects of polio, spending most of his time in an iron lung and, at 38 years old, a virgin.
After seeking advice from his priest, a funny and compassionate performance by Oscar® winner William H. Macy, O’Brien begins a journey to make an intimiate connection, “to feel loved sexually,” as he once wrote in his article “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate,” on which the screenplay is based. The sessions between Hunt and Hawkes are lively and spirited, frustrating at times, but more than anything else, a lesson in recognizing the moments that make us feel valued and worthy, the things that define us. In O’Brien’s case, it essentially gave him a new lease on life, reason to live; for Cohen Greene, a woman who seemingly had it all – husband, child, a home, her health – she realized life is more than all of those things.
That is where The Sessions greatly succeeds thanks to the nuanced and delicate performances of Hawkes – who is a very likely Lead Actor Oscar® nominee for his work, especially because of the physical limitations he navigates throughout – and Hunt, who confirms here why she is already an Oscar® winner (As Good As It Gets) because of her fearlessness (she bares it all) and ability to drop subtle hints through the course of her own story arc and then, like a Mack truck, plow you over with emotion at the end.
Directed and written by Ben Lewin, who connected deeply with the story as somone who also contracted polio as a child, The Sessions has already proven its worth, winning the Audience Award and Ensemble Acting Special Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
The Seven Sees has a more in-depth look at the movie with insight from Lewin, Cohen Greene, and Jake Hamilton‘s conversations with Hunt and Hawkes.