Every year there’s at least one film with the words “Festival Hit of the Year” slathered across it. Sometimes it deserves the praise; sometimes it doesn’t. It at least ensures a crowd pleaser of a film.
What these films also bring with them is the chance to see a film that beats to a different drum – than Hollywood at least. Ultimately, yes, you should seek these films out, even if it’s on home video since they don’t wind up on 3,000 screens. And The Sessions, writer/director Ben Lewin’s biopic of polio-plagued Mark O’Brien (played brilliantly by John Hawkes), is certainly no different.
Lewin kicks things off with news footage of the real Mark making his way across the University of California, Berkeley, accepting his degree, and strolling down the street in his motorized gurney. Switching to Hawkes, we catch up with Mark in 1988, where he bides his time writing poetry and getting sponge bathes from his caretaker Joan (Rusty Schwimmer). He attends church where he meets the new priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy), whom he eventually confides in as a friend. Mark winds up firing Joan based on her attitude and hires Amanda (Annika Marks). Mark starts to fall in love with her but when he confesses his love she quits. Now, Mark is between two caretakers, Rod (W. Earl Brown) and Vera (Moon Bloodgood).
One day, Mark receives a phone call with an article opportunity dealing with the disabled and having sex. Mark begins to interview people including Carmen (Jennifer Kumiyama). Mark realizes he’s starting to be a little out of his league with the article as he is a virgin. He seeks out the help of a sex surrogate – someone who offers intimate physical relations or sex with patients as therapy. Cheryl (Helen Hunt) is more than happy to help Mark out with his situation and let the therapy begin. After a few sessions, Mark has yet again fallen prey to his feelings and writes Cheryl a poem, much to the chagrin of her husband Josh (Adam Arkin) who throws the letter away before she can read it. Will Mark ever find true love? Will Mark succeed in his quest for penetration?
It’s no surprise The Sessions won the Audience Award and U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Price for Ensemble Acting at this year’s 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Everyone is at the top of their game, from Macy to Hawkes, and especially Helen Hunt. I have to admit that I was mad about her when she was on Mad About You and in Twister, and let’s just say that she’s in fine form here. At 49-years-old she’s got a body most 20-somethings would envy. And yes, just to warn or excite you, she does go full monty. The only thing that seems awkward is the film’s ending. It’s very abrupt and almost sucks the life out of the film. But what matters most is Mark’s story, and Lewin manages to bring us the most poignant, even while highly hilarious, tale of losing one’s virginity since The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Oscar nominations are surely headed their way.
Photos courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures