Caught in the Act

Film Review: The Sessions

By Jared Bowen

October 25, 2012
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Helen Hunt as Cheryl in The Sessions. (Fox Searchlight)

BOSTON — In The Sessions, a new film based on the true story of Dorchester-native Mark O’Brien, stricken with polio since childhood, embarks on a quest for something he’s longed for much of his life—sex. Behind the scenes, filming it wasn’t an easy process.
O’Brien, played by John Hawkes, was largely confined to an iron lung, but at age 38, having never had a sexual encounter, he elects to lose his virginity with a sexual surrogate, played by Helen Hunt. Their meeting gets off to a bumpy start.
“Although the aim is for us to have sex, I’m not a prostitute,” Hunt says in the film. “You don’t have to pay me up front. I have nothing against prostitutes. There’s a difference but we can talk about that later.”

John Hawkes talks about the depth of the character he plays. “Mark had a romantic soul. He was a poet. And I think that he wanted to love and be loved by someone in a way that he hadn’t experienced yet.”
Hawkes poured over O’Brien’s own writings on the experience, spoke with his surviving friends and repeatedly watched a documentary short about him.  The hard part though, was filming the sex scenes.
“Sex scenes by nature are awkward and unfamiliar and often humorous as you’re shooting them. And then they’re usually edited and music is added to make them look like a perfect fantasy. Well we didn’t want that,” Hawkes said.
To keep the relationship between Mark and Cheryl, the surrogate, as organic as possible, director Ben Lewin kept his stars apart. 
“They didn’t really know each other. And their contact prior to filming was very scant, very minimal. But we didn’t rehearse those scenes. There was a kind of spontaneity about the awkwardness of their first meeting,” Lewin said.
“A lot things you’re seeing are happening for the very first time, and it is difficult,” Hawkes said. “As an actor, you want to throw the ball back and forth. Acting is reacting. And when—let me put it this way—it was very difficult. Mark is a character who has no movement from the neck down. It’s very difficult when Helen Hunt is undressing you not to want to help somehow.”
The complexities work. For as unconventional as they may be, The Sessions sex scenes rank among the most emotionally resonant ever committed to film.

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About the Author
Jared Bowen Jared Bowen
Jared Bowen is WGBH’s Emmy Award-winning Executive Editor and Host for Arts. 


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