The Sessions is a warm, crowd-pleasing biographical account about immense courage and sexual healing that will entertain and leave few dry eyes in the house. Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) is a man who has lived most of his life with the support of an iron lung and several compassionate aids (notably Vera, Moon Bloodgood). Despite his paralysis, Mark’s brain remains sharp and he becomes a renowned writer, journalist and poet. Mark comes to realise that there is one experience he desires above all else - sexual intercourse with a woman – and he vows to lose his virginity. After consulting with his priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy), who declares that he believes “God will give him a free pass on this one”, he contacts a California sex surrogate – a therapist (Helen Hunt) who offers therapeutic guidance through intimate sexual interactions.
66-year-old writer and director Ben Lewin, also a polio survivor, was inspired to write this film having read O’Brien’s article, “On Seeing A Sex Surrogate”. The sex sessions featuring Mark and Cheryl are given added authenticity due the fact that Lewin worked closely with Cohen Green and those who knew and loved Mark.
Like any great film, it is the characters that ensure the film leaves a lasting impression. Mark’s bravery, his genuine honesty, his charming qualities and his sharp wit ensure he is easily (and immediately) likeable. His ability to articulate and project, despite his frail physique, and his desire to live his life to the fullest, despite his physical limitations and the rules of his religion (which he abides by, but requests a lone reprieve), means that he is an inspiration too.
Hawkes, to convincingly portray his character, severely limited his own physicality and transformed himself (to the point of damaging his own spine) while infusing his character with pathos in spades. But, it is through his expressions (and particularly his eyes) that we truly learn about Mark’s daily wrestle with his fears and the immense joy he finds through his new experiences. Hawkes, one of the finest character actors working today, further proves his incredible versatility and professional dedication to his roles.
Hunt, in a role that is bold on a physical level, measures her emotions perfectly. Her complex feelings for Mark, whether it is love, respect or immense sadness, evidently test her self-appointed morals. William H. Macy is handy as Mark’s sensitive religious guide who is willing to make an exception. Whether they are conversing within earshot of flabbergasted churchgoers or over a beer at Mark’s home, Brendan is an important friend and influence.
The Sessions is an exemplary drama and Hawkes and Hunt deliver unforgettable portrayals. Having been intimately involved with Mark for the duration of the film I was left feeling inspired, life affirmed and delighted by the knowledge that such touching tales exist in the world I live in. This moving and optimistic meditation on disability, sex and human sensations manages to maturely ensure that physical intimacy is as much an emotional experience and proves that our relationships with others are the most rewarding feature of our human existence.
Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22
Directed by: Ben Lewin Written by: Ben Lewin (screenplay) Starring:John Hawkes, Helen Hunt and William H. Macy