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USA 2012
Directed by
Ben Lewin
102 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Sharon Hurst
4 stars

The Sessions

Synopsis: Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) has had polio since the age of six. He spends much of his time in an iron lung but has managed to study for a degree and retains a fairly upbeat view of life. At the age of 38 he decides he wants to lose his virginity. After bouncing the idea off his priest and confidante, Father Brendan (William H. Macy), Mark employs the services of sex surrogate (Helen Hunt) to help him achieve his goal.

It’s been a bumper time recently for films dealing with disability with The Other Film Festival having just finished and The Intouchables currently screening.  The Sessions is perhaps the cream of the crop. Based on Mark O’Brien’s 1990 published article “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate”, The Sessions takes a subject often relegated to the embarrassment closet and brings it gloriously into the open, with humour and compassion. What better person to direct it than Australian director Ben Lewin who himself contracted polio as a child. Lewin has never let that get in his way and he has imbued this film with immense energy and positivity. It deservedly garnered both the Audience Award and the Jury Prize for ensemble acting at Sundance.

Much credit must go to Lewin’s fine script, which, while retaining humour never goes so far as to be flippant, and while being compassionate never sinks into mawkishness. There is a strong love story at the film’s heart and able-bodied people can relate to that aspect as well as the hurdle that losing one’s virginity presents, regardless of one’s bodily capabilities.

Credit for making the film so immediate and accessible goes of course also to the two brilliant performances and chemistry generated by Hawkes and Hunt. I’m more familiar with Hawkes playing unpleasant individuals (as he has in Winter’s Bone, 2010, and Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene, 2011) but here he captures, with poignant comic timing, the voice and personality of the softly-spoken, quick-witted O’Brien (with a bit of help from a 1966 doco in which Mark spoke about his attitudes to life, death, sex, work and poetry). The practical issues of Hawkes having to learn to use a mouth operated stick for phone dialling and typing must have been challenging, not to mention having to lie horizontal for the entire filming. The final result, however, is that we completely believe that Hawkes is a man whose life is utterly circumscribed by his limited physicality. Although Mark’s confinement could have felt oppressive for the audience his inner dialogue, variously poignant and amusing, brings some light relief and Lewin at times also varies the setting.

Balancing Hawkes’ performance is the unselfconscious bravery of veteran actress Helen Hunt who spends much of the film naked, giving explicit instructions to Mark on how to control his body and to make love to her. This is on-screen sex like you’ve never seen, and done in a way that brings not only insight into what it means to be so disabled but also the true meaning of patience and compassion.

Although the character of Fr. Brendan is fictional, he was created by Lewin because Mark was a devout Catholic, grappling also with issues of guilt. William H. Macy makes the priest a wonderful and unexpectedly open character. Some of the funniest scenes (many pre-empted by the trailer which has shown too much) are Macy’s. Smaller roles like those of Mark’s carers, Carmen and Amanda, are sensitively handled.

At heart, The Sessions is a story of a relationship and the blossoming of this immensely likeable and talented man. It is also about the right of all people to a sexual life if at all possible and it is so brave of Lewin and his cast to bring it into the open with such an engaging, moving and uplifting film.




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