Based on the autobiographical writings of its subject, Mark O’Brien, The Sessions is a crowd-pleasing drama about a man struggling to fulfil the most basic of sensations we take for granted – our capacity for sexual gratification.
O’Brien (John Hawkes), a 38-year-old man, is confined to an iron long for the majority of his waking life, paralysed after a debilitating bout of childhood polio. Still, he hasn’t let it hold him back; he’s an accomplished poet, and that prose adapted here – which could in the wrong hands have seemed overly precious and syrupy – is kept affectingly down-to-Earth by way of Hawkes’ sensitive portrayal and Ben Lewin’s simple but effective treatment
It is Mark’s gorgeous carer Amanda (Annika Marks) who initially awakens his lust, while he confides these urges in pragmatic priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy). With his blessing, Mark proceeds to enlist the aid of a sex surrogate, Cheryl (Helen Hunt), a friendly, calming influence who not only helps him achieve sexual satisfaction, but presents her own sense of challenge and refuses to patronise.
And so Lewin proceeds with his irreverent take on sexuality and the disabled, mining the inherent awkwardness of the situation for uproarious laughs, but also remaining heartfelt and resolutely human. It goes without saying that the film is certainly at its most interesting once it gets down to the nitty gritty of Mark’s sexual mechanics, broaching the basics of sensuality above all else that able-bodied folk of course take as a given. Hunt shines here in a vanity-free role – despite looking fantastic for her age – that has the actress baring all while keeping pace with Hawkes’ marvellous performance.
Their bond is sweet and funny, but never escapes the inevitabilities of the situation; the missing pleasure of giving sexual joy, and the tension that this creates – in not only Mark, but Cheryl’s private life also. The wrenching pain of feeling – that for Mark, this is not mere chemical exchange – easily avoids cheap sentiment, instead achieving a poignant authenticity regarding the tragic limitations of his life.
Though Lewin is evidently a stronger writer than he is a director, he still manages to evoke a heart-warming appreciation for life, while conceding that primal interplay between sex and death. Another dynamite vehicle for John Hawkes, in which Lewin’s affecting script overcomes his pedestrian direction.
The Sessions is released in UK cinemas on January 18th, 2013.
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