Today: February 25, 2024

The Sessions

Already something of a festival darling, The Sessions

Already something of a festival darling, The Sessions
is gaining the kind of appreciation reserved for awards-baiting films.

And well it might, with the raw and honest approach it has towards a
disabled man looking to lose his virginity. Based on a true story, an article by the film’s protagonist Mark O’Brian, it’s about a man trying
to overcome his own fears about his disability rather than anyone else’s and
sees two stunning central performances from its leads. On paper, at least, The Sessions is
just waiting to paint Hollywood gold with Oscar predictions.

Mark O’Brian (John Hawkes) contracted polio when he
was six years old. Since then he
has been paralysed from the neck down and spends most of his time in an iron
lung. But his disabilities haven’t
stopped him from becoming a recognised poet and writer. At the age of 36
however, Mark feels it’s about time he lost his virginity so seeks advice from
his priest Father Brendan (William H
) and his carer Vera (Moon
) about how to go about such a thing. The result is to hire a sex surrogate in the shapely form of
Cheryl (Helen Hunt). Cheryl is a normal housewife with a son
and loving husband and as such limits her time with her clients to just six
sessions, she doesn’t want repeat business but rather to give people the
confidence to continue their sexual awakening without her. But Mark is no ordinary patient and is
soon having a profound effect on all those he encounters.

If it all sounds
a little like The Disabled 40-Year-Old Virgin it smartly avoids such
trappings. Instead, The Sessions
is a genuinely affectionate story, endlessly endearing due to Mark’s disarming
sense of humour. He is a man who
is all too aware of the stigmas that come with his disability but isn’t afraid
to self-deprecate himself before others have a chance to feel guilty.

And then he has
to confront his own fears about his physical form. Cheryl is essentially a therapist, a sex-guru for disabled
people. The scenes between Mark
and Cheryl could easily have become awkward to watch but thanks to director Ben
Lewin’s comforting approach you are, like Mark, always in safe hands.

It’s all very
sweet-natured and fun to behold and yet there is something about The Sessions
that feels flat. Lewin’s direction
is nothing spectacular, which is fine given the character-driven nature of the
story, but all too often his script throws up interesting ideas without ever
cementing them or exploring them to their fullest. Mark’s body has failed but his mind is still a whirlwind of
energy and as such becomes a Cyrano de Bergerac for the 21st
Century. But just as it seems
Cheryl is beginning to fall for him, the film dodges the moral pitfalls such a
theme might open. There’s a whole
idea here of the ability, or inability, to separate physical love from
emotional love so when it skims over it you’re left wondering what could have

Helen Hunt is no
stranger to the beguiling woman helping a man through his emotional needs (As Good As It Gets) and here she
continues that trend. Of course
her performance is brave (translation: she gets naked) but more than that it’s
affectionate and, without getting too Oedipal, maternal towards Mark’s
predicament. Moon Bloodgood, best
known for her more kick-ass role in Terminator
, brings a lovely level of dry emotion to Mark’s life. Meanwhile William H. Macy is one of the
more comedic presences onscreen with his clearly out of his league religious
advice doing little but confusing matters to fun levels of eye-rolling towards
the Virgin Mary. But the film
belongs to John Hawkes and should, if there is any justice in the world, see
him at least nominated for an Oscar.
As Mark he hones both the mindset and physical form of a man who has
lived his whole life staring at the ceiling. It’s a million light years away from the more recent,
terrifying incarnations we’ve seen in Martha
Marcy May Marlene
and Winter’s Bone
to present something that is never anything short of charming.

The Sessions will
no doubt appeal to many as a lighthearted take on an important subject matter:
the sex lives of disabled people is still, for many, a taboo subject. Unfortunately The Sessions takes
controversial, potentially explosive material and tries to be this year’s The King’s Speech. It’s a solid, if unspectacular effort,
which is made right by a brilliant performance from Hawkes and a script which
manages to keep you smiling through all the tough times.

Alex Moss Editor

Alex Moss’ obsession with film began the moment he witnessed the Alien burst forth from John Hurt’s stomach. It was perhaps ill-advised to witness this aged 6 but much like the beast within Hurt, he became infected by a parasite called ‘Movies’. Rarely away from his computer or a big screen, as he muses on Cinematic Deities, Alex is “more machine now than man. His mind is twisted and evil”. Email:

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