I've said it before and I'll say it again, 2012's Sundance Film Festival must have been one for the ages. The large crop of impressive films to come out of this year's indie competition has been nothing short of remarkable. One of the two biggest winners at the festival comes in the form of Ben Lewin's The Sessions (the other being Beasts of the Southern Wild). It's a welcome back to writer and director Ben Lewin, who finds himself in the driver's seat of his first feature length film in almost 20 years. Lucky for us, Lewin's triumphant return to the director's chair is nothing short of spectacular.
The Sessions tells the real life story of a polio stricken poet named Mark O'Brien (played by John Hawkes), a remarkable man who refused to be defined by his condition. With the virus weakening his muscles and lungs, O'Brien spent much of his life confined to an iron lung. Able to survive outside of his iron box for only a few hours at a time, the religious 38 year old O'Brien finds himself at church talking to Father Brendan (played by William H. Macy) about a troubling issue. Concerned that his life clock is running out and desperately wanting to experience sexual ecstasy, O'Brien asks the priest if god would forgive his pursuit of sex outside of marriage. Somewhat baffled by the question, Father Brendan mulls over the idea and finally gives Mark his blessing. O'Brien then seeks out a sex therapist (played by Helen Hunt) to accommodate his delicate set of circumstances and guide him through his first sexual experience.
With a premise so wacky it could only be true, The Sessions finds itself as one of the most heartfelt and emotionally attachable films in recent memory. Writer and director Ben Lewin hits all the right notes and delivers one of the year's finest scripts and finished products. The Sessions is clearly intended to be a sentimental drama, yet Lewin's comedic style of writing adds a lighter side to the film that forces the audience to connect with its characters. And with a script in the mold of this one, it's essential to back up the writing with a gifted cast. Lewin goes above and beyond anyone's expectations with the casting decision of John Hawkes as his leading star. Not only did Hawkes receive lengthy standing ovations after The Sessions premiered at Sundance, his performance undoubtedly warrants a Best Actor Nomination from the Academy. Hawkes crafts one of the most endearing and likable characters in cinema history. O'Brien's lovable demeanor will bring laughs and tears to nearly everyone in the audience, proving that Hawkes is well deserving of the abundant praise he is sure to receive throughout his awards season run. As if Hawkes' portrayal isn't enough, Lewin conjures up an unforgettable supporting cast which will almost certainly find an additional nomination or two at the 2013 Oscars. Most likely is supporting actress Helen Hunt who proves to be very secure in her body throughout many of the racy sex scenes. Hunt offers her finest role in over a decade, one that is sure to help resurrect her career. It's also worth noting the fine onscreen effort given by William H. Macy as O'Brien's priest, friend and confidant. All in all, The Sessions is an extremely uplifting and multifaceted piece of filmmaking.
There's many obstacles when branding a feature that revolves around the idea of sex. It's a somewhat taboo element often very difficult to pull off. Lewin addresses the topic with such humility and wholesomeness that it's hard to not fall in love with The Sessions. Having written the script, helped with casting, and directed the feature, Ben Lewin is clearly the man behind the curtain. His phenomenal vision helped transform this amazing true story into a brilliant cinematic creation. And if all of these glowing attributes aren't enough to peek your interest, let it be known that The Sessions' modest 95 minute runtime breezes by with ease. Every second of the film helps to build up to a gigantic emotional conclusion that both satisfies the audience and puts a beautiful bow on the end of the story. Without a flaw in sight, The Sessions is undoubtedly one of 2012's greatest offerings.
As the brightest spot of the 21st annual Philadelphia Film Festival which also included big name features like Silver Linings Playbook, Flight and Cloud Atlas, The Sessions proved to be the most honest and touching finished product in the bunch. Genuine and sincere, the movie never attempts to be something larger than it truly is. There's a special vibe flowing throughout The Sessions that sets it apart from other awards season contenders. The picture is much funnier than you'd imagine and even more heartfelt than you'd expect. While The Sessions finds itself in the midst of a limited release, I expect it to reach theatres everywhere as the Oscars draw near. Either go out of your way to see the film now or remember to keep an eye out for its expanded theatrical release. The Sessions is definitely one of the "must see" movies of 2012, you can't miss it.