TIFF ‘12: The Sessions review

An unlikely hit at this year’s Sundance film festival (where it carried the title “The Surrogate”), “The Sessions” was a standout among the dark ‘indie’ films that have become de rigur for the fest. And unlike the 20-something upstart auteurs whose films populate the bulk of the lineup, this gentle, human comedy-drama was directed by Ben Lewin, a 66 year old industry veteran who’s been making films for 4 decades. The inspirational true story focuses on Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), a journalist and poet who was confined to an iron lung after contracting polio as a child. In spite of his pitiable condition, Mark is a feisty, imaginative man who has a sense of humor about himself and an unwavering faith in God.

Mark has full use of his face but is mostly immobile below the neck so he requires daily care to be fed, bathed and other activities that people take for granted. He ends up falling hopelessly in love with one of his caretakers, who leaves after he professes his love for her. Around this time he decides that because he does appear capable of certain other biological functions, he doesn’t want to die a virgin. He consults his priest, Father Brendan (a shaggy William H. Macy) who gives him his blessing to see find someone who will be able to help him out. Mark arranges a meeting with Cheryl (Helen Hunt), a thick Boston accented sex therapist and “surrogate” who says that she can see him for 6 sessions to guide him comfortably through the experiences but after that their professional relationship must end.

The appointments themselves are presented very matter-of-factly, sometimes awkward, sometimes funny and despite some nudity, never gratuitously. The most fascinating aspect of the situation (explored only briefly) is that Cheryl is a housewife and mother who just happens to have this very strange job. Perennial supporting actor Hawkes continues an impressive streak of performances taking to the lead role nicely without doing anything too showy and it’s nice to see Hunt onscreen again in some decent material. Because of the awards checkboxes it hits (inspirational true story? disability? “brave” nudity?) it’s sure to be an awards magnet but was too lightweight to make much of a lasting impression.