In 1990 the writer Mark O'Brien contributed an article for the literary magazine The Sun called "On Seeing a Sex Surrogate." A survivor of childhood
The lovely new film
But what's there, to quote Spencer Tracy, is choice. John Hawkes is wonderful as O'Brien, as is Helen Hunt as the surrogate whose sessions with O'Brien form the crux of the film. The results are extremely moving and, in general, low on egregiously yanked heartstrings or the usual biopic filler. Writer-director Ben Lewin sticks close to the anticipation and to the fraught and tender details of O'Brien's sessions with Hunt's real-life character, Cheryl Cohen-Greene. And when the ending arrives it's almost impossible not to feel a great deal.
It's gratifying to see Hawkes playing this dear combination of pained stoicism and sunny, wisecracking optimism. In films such as
Hunt is an interesting case on screen. She can be formidable and mercurial, warm and cool in the same instant, though in some roles the edginess gets the best of her, as if she needed to be somewhere else, and soon. In "The Sessions" that bluntness works. Frequently nude (typical of an MPAA-sanctioned R rating, the nudity's all on the female side), she runs the sessions as forthright explorations of uncharted territory. After one successful session there's a sun-dappled shot of O'Brien looking up at the trees above him, and the look on his face is that of heartbreaking joy and a kind of plaintive nostalgia for what's already in the past.
O'Brien reveals his insecurities regarding his virginity-loss project to a Catholic priest (William H. Macy, rock-solid and often very funny in his theological assessment of O'Brien's desires). In other parts of "The Sessions," Hawkes confides in voice-over; in still others, he pours out little bits of his easily seduced heart to his poker-faced assistant Vera (
O'Brien was the subject of an Oscar-winning short "Breathing Lessons," and it seems likely that "The Sessions" will receive a few nominations of its own. It deserves them.