Sundance 2012 Film Review: The Sessions (The Surrogate)
The Sessions (formerly titled The Surrogate) certainly deserved to win the Audience Award and Special Jury Prize for ensemble acting in the U.S. Dramatic category. Character actor and now Sundance veteran John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone, Martha Marcy May Marlene) turns in an Oscar-worthy performance despite the physical limitations of the role (only being able to move his head and change facial expressions). Director Ben Lewin and his exceptional cast take a potentially disastrous subject matter and turn it into a tender memorial of one man’s life-long struggle with polio and his desire to lose his virginity. It has everything a film should have, amply providing comedy while striking the right dramatic notes; it should have widespread appeal at least amongst adults given the probable hard-R or possibly NC-17 rating. The Sessions is a wonderful, albeit morally challenging, film with a perfect balance of humor and heart; viewers will find themselves in all sorts of tears: joy, laughter and heartbreaking emotion. Fear not though, it is one of the more accessible, uplifting and life-affirming tales ever to come out of a typically edgy, gritty and downbeat Sundance Film Festival.
The film is based on Mark O’Brien’s poetry and article “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate.” It follows the polio-stricken man who is confined to his iron lung (a huge machine that helps him breathe) for all but a few hours of the day. Despite his handicap, he has always tried to live his life to the fullest. After graduating from the University of Berkley, he sets out to lose his virginity, since at age 38 and in his condition he feels he might not have much time left to do so. When his more traditional method of getting a woman fails, he decides to use a sex “surrogate.”
Fortunately, he finds the sensitive and still beautiful Cheryl Cohen Greene, a kindhearted and devoted sex therapist. She is upfront about the differences between her position and a common prostitute, as surrogates limit their visits, designed not only to help the client achieve sexual satisfaction but also develop their emotional behavior as well, instead of pure instant gratification and seeking return business; hence, her self-proclaimed title sex therapist. O’Brien, having never been intimate with someone before, suffers from premature ejaculation on several of their meetings, but the two work together to ease his anxious behavior so he can finally have full blown intercourse. As the sessions continue she finds it increasingly difficult to remain emotionally detached, as anyone who has begun a sexual relationship with another can attest to.
The other main component to the story is his recurring visit to his Catholic church where Father Brendan offers up his time to counsel O’Brien. Despite the conflicting morality, the priest claims God will give him a free pass on this one. William H. Macy is perfect for the role as the droll character. His scenes are cleverly intercut with the sex scenes to optimize comedic effect, though without becoming overtly derisive of the church. With Father Brendan and a trio of personal physician assistants, O’Brien is well cared for, but his health is always in the balance.
The plot seems a bit absurd, but it is a sensitive subject matter rarely confronted with such grace and emotion. Films covering sex topics are usually polarizing, especially when one adds in the fact that the protagonist is physically handicapped. It is an area rich with themes and deep messages about humanity. The nudity and sex scenes certainly make the film R-rated if not NC-17, but it less erotic than it is therapeutic and heartwarming. While the story could have easily become overly sentimental, The Sessions mostly steers clear of schmaltzy territory with a more sincere approach (though Marco Beltrami’s score occasionally oversteps in terms of sentimentality), largely thanks to some great performances all around.
The film is a showcase for John Hawkes and Helen Hunt. Hawkes does more with simple head movements and facial expressions than most actors can do with entire body languages. He is extremely charming as O’Brien but also human, in that he can be a bit stubborn. This and other flaws keep the character from becoming too perfect. Also, his interactions with all those around him feel natural and healthy in that no one seems to like him out of pity; they all genuinely care about him. It is a tremendous performance likely to garner major awards attention. Similarly, Hunt gives one of her best performances in years as Cheryl the sex therapist. Baring it all, she skillfully conveys the right emotions through her character’s arc.
The supporting cast has a few notables who give solid, entertaining performances. As mentioned before, Macy is quite amusing as Father Brendan. Moon Bloodgood and Annika Marks serve as two beautiful assistants serving O’Brien in two different time periods. Jennifer Kumiyama, a handicapped woman with Arthrogryposis, opens her home to O’Brien for the sex therapist visits, since he does not have a bed in his own house (apart from the gurney he uses and iron lung he sleeps in). Asian character actor Ming Lo makes a humorous appearance as a hotel clerk.
Overall, the film is a feel-good crowd-pleaser that strikes many emotional chords throughout. It is not only an entertaining, oftentimes hilarious dramedy but also a story rich with moral questions. Indeed, it is a pitch-perfect blend of comedy and drama. Do not miss The Sessions (formerly titled The Surrogate) when it hits theaters; Fox Searchlight paid a whopping $6 million for distribution rights and it certainly seems like one to receive considerable marketing at least for awards purposes later this year. Check it out at any cost!
Six Sessions (The Surrogate) – 9/10