The Sessions, starring John Hawkes (Winter's Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene) and Helen Hunt, is probably the best film I've seen so far this year. Originally titled The Surrogate when it played at the Sundance Film Festival in January and took home a couple of awards, Hawkes plays real-life writer Mark O'Brien, who was confined to a gurney or iron lung for most of his life due to polio. The plot is fairly straightforward: the combination of a lifetime mostly devoid of any intimacy and an upcoming writing job on the sex lives of the disabled leads the 38-year-old O'Brien to hire a sex surrogate named Cheryl (played by Hunt) to help him lose his virginity, with guidance coming from his local priest (played by William H. Macy).
Hawkes is a revelation, delivering a graceful and affecting performance with essentially no physicality, as he spends the entire film flat on his back and relying almost entirely on his facial performance and voice, which he affects with a slightly nasally tone. Based on his work here, I believe I'll have to go back and revisit the Oscar-nominated performance he gave in Winter's Bone, a film that bored me so much that I bailed out of it about three quarters of the way through. His Mark character is a warm, wickedly funny charmer that will quickly win viewers over (and not out of sympathy for his disability). Occasional voice-overs where Hawkes reads selections of O'Brien's poetry (it's not remotely as painful as it might sound) nicely provide some thoughtful extra insight into his worldview, mostly involving the topic of love. The path leading up to his decision to hire the surrogate introduces us to Macy's fantastic Father Brendan character, who gives Mark his blessing and becomes a source of counsel, friendship, and laughs throughout the rest of the film. Mark also gets encouragement from his two caregivers, including one played in an excellent supporting performance from Moon Bloodgood. Hunt, who has appeared less onscreen in recent years to focus more on directing and theatre work, matches Hawkes' standout work step-for-step, instilling a dignity and compassion to Cheryl as she educates Mark in the ways of physical intimacy. Those teachings tastefully deconstruct the act of sex and all the awkwardness and uncertainty that goes along with it (she also bravely appears completely nude quite a few times). Slivers of Cheryl's home life with her son and husband (played by Adam Arkin) offer just enough of a look into her own growing conflict, which I won't spoil here.
Director/writer Ben Lewin, a polio survivor himself, has crafted one of those rare knockout cinematic pieces of work that'll hit you about halfway through watching just how special it is. His efforts and a number of first-rate performances should easily succeed in winning your deep emotional investment in The Sessions, which treats a potentially fragile subject with an admirable maturity and a surprisingly pleasant amount of disarming humour.
Opens in the U.S. on October 19th, Canada on November 2nd, and the rest of the world beginning in November