September 13, 2012


Oscar buzz has been trailing THE SESSIONS (which was then called The Surrogate) since it was unveiled at Sundance in January, and with good reason.  For Academy members, it doesn’t get much better than a warm “based on a true story” about someone with a serious disability who nevertheless maintains his sense of humor and purpose, offering a triumph of the human spirit along with laughs, tears, and some moderately graphic yet heartwarming sex.  Fox Searchlight accordingly snapped the picture up for release during awards season, a period that more or less began in Toronto. The Sessions is such an awards engine that it’s easy to underrate, but the fact is that it’s a very good movie, superbly acted and deeper emotionally than you might expect.  Searchlight had the summer’s most popular indie with The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel earlier in the year, and this could well break out in the fall.

The film is based on the life story of Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), a writer of prose and poetry who was stricken with polio in childhood, and whose limbs were for the most part useless.  O’Brien had to be rolled around on a hospital gurney, and type his work painstakingly with a tool between his teeth; he could only breathe on his own for a few hours at a time, having to spend the majority of his days and nights in an iron lung.  He was, however, able to function sexually, and in his late 30s, around 1990, he decided that he wanted to lose his virginity.  O’Brien was a devout Catholic, and after consulting with his local priest, Father Brendan (Willam H. Macy) to see if the church would allow him to engage in what would be sex without marriage, O’Brien hired a professional sex surrogate named Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt).  Some of the most interesting aspects of the film are in its depiction of Cohen Greene, who has very definite rules that differentiate what she does (that’s present-tense–according to the Q&A after the Toronto screening, she’s still doing it), from prostitution.  These include a strict limit on the number of times (6) she will meet with any client, and detailed notes on each client’s problems and how they can specifically be remedied.

The  heart of The Sessions is in the sequences between Hawkes and Hunt.  Those scenes are beautifully written by writer/director Ben Lewin, and both actors do extraordinary work.  Hawkes has been brilliant in small indies like Winter’s Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene; here he literally has to act only with his face and voice, and he manages to make O’Brien a vibrant, believable character.  Hunt, who’s spent quite a long time between good roles, thoroughly matches him, crisp and professional but with an increasingly strong tide of emotion, and together, they make an extremely odd situation seem very real.  They certainly belong in the year’s awards conversation.

The Sessions isn’t a complicated movie.  Lewin has mostly worked in television, and the movie has the flat look of a made-for-TV drama, and little visual adornment.   But Lewin does take the time not just to give Macy’s Father Brendan some meaty scenes and big laughs, but to develop characters out of O’Brien’s caregivers Rod and Vera (W. Earl Brown and Moon Bloodgood, the latter particularly good in an uncharacteristic role), and Cheryl’s husband Josh (Adam Arkin).  The film is an emotionally well-rounded, satisfying piece of work that largely deserves the kudos it’s gotten and will continue to collect.



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About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."