Directed by Ben Lewin. US. 2012. R. 95 min. Fox Searchlight. 35mm.
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“John Hawkes’ polio-stricken poet in The Sessions imbues his quest to lose his virginity and connect in the most profound spiritual manner imaginable with another human being with such sweetness and light it’s as if he’s doing God a favor by ridding himself of his unwanted virginity. Hawkes is so charming and innately lovable that even God, as represented in this terrestrial realm by a priest played by a shaggy-haired William H. Macy, gives Hawkes a pass to lose his virginity the old-fashioned way: by paying someone to have sex with him. Only in The Sessions,there’s nothing remotely sordid or sinful about sex.
The Sessions has attracted a lot of attention and praise here [at the Sundance Film Festival] for a very good reason: oh sure, there will undoubtedly be fine performances in 2012, but they might as well just go ahead and give Hawkes the Academy Award for Best Actor now. In the abstract, I should despise The Sessions. It’s everything I usually view with suspicion, if not downright contempt. It’s undeniable Oscar-bait (Helen Hunt would actually deserve the Oscar if she won next year for her tender portrayal of a sex surrogate) as well a heartwarming tale of triumph over adversity as flatly and unimaginatively filmed and devoid of style as a TV movie from the 1980s.
Yet none of that ultimately matters; an excess of style would only distract from the visceral emotions and powerful acting at the film’s core. In a revelatory performance, Hawkes plays a poet who maintains a droll sense of humor and lust for life despite being fated to spend most of his existence imprisoned in an iron lung. At age 38, Hawkes decides to lose his virginity and recruits the services of sex surrogate Hunt. Hawkes is at first anxious and more than a little bit terrified, but Hunt’s patience and gentle touch lead her client gently and lovingly into the alternately scary and life-affirming world of sex.
Hawkes falls hopelessly in love with the married and unavailable Hunt and discovers that having sex creates more problems than it solves, even when emotion is supposed to be factored out of the equation. Hawkes longs for Hunt in a way that transgresses the boundaries of a healthy therapist-client relationship, but she’s professionally obligated to end their relationship after six sessions.
Hawkes and Hunt’s relationship is defined by incredible tenderness, as is his equally sweet but much different relationship with Macy, who he uses as a combination therapist, buddy, spiritual leader, and unlikely and reluctant adviser on carnal matters.
The Surrogate invests Hawkes’ quest to lose his virginity with incongruous purity and innocence. It might just be the most poignant, moving film ever made about one ma’s surprisingly noble efforts to get laid.” (Nathan Rabin, The A.V. Club)
Access more reviews at metacritic.com.