Ben Lewin found the inspiration for his latest project while “wasting time on the internet”; something that he recommended to the audience at this year’s London Film Festival. Obviously a work of personal importance to Lewin who himself survived childhood polio, The Sessions is a wonderful opportunity to spend some time with the warm, witty, complex Mark O’Brien, a journalist and poet struck down with polio at the age of six and confined to an iron lung for the vast majority of his life.
Asked to write an article on sex and the disabled Mark discovers a world he hadn’t previously thought he could experience. Hiring a sex surrogate (Cheryl Cohen-Greene) he begins a series of sessions to achieve his dream of becoming sexually active.
Let’s not beat around the bush – The Sessions is a film completely consumed with sex. It spends its whole time talking about it, writing about it, thinking about it, reading about it (in a fairly squeamish way), doing it. And this is sensible, funny, beautiful, awkward, tender, wonderful, embarrassing, grown-up sex. The film handles the idea of someone’s first time (disabled or otherwise) in a genuinely human, mature way which makes it that much more intimate and touching.
The relationship between O’Brien and Cohen-Greene is utterly believable and walks the line between bitter and sweet perfectly, and even the points at which the film slips into drama it is handled so poignantly (and never out of balance with the rest of the picture) that it tugs at the heart-strings just the right amount.
John Hawkes, working within the physical limitations of O’Brien’s condition – only able to move his head 90º – brings the kind of full-bodied commitment we have come to expect from his chameleonic performances. He is dry, religiously conflicted, charming and fascinating, and his missing out on an Oscar nomination comes as a disappointing surprise. Helen Hunt (nominated in the Supporting Actress category) is perfect as teacher/therapist/friend, Cohen-Greene. The part is similar in tone to her previous Oscar-winning role in ‘As Good As It Gets’ but to compare the two doesn’t do justice to either performance. Hunt is strong and empathetic, delivering a well-rounded, layered character. It is as much her education as it is O’Brien’s and the time given to her character brings balance and warmth to the film.
The simple fact is that Hawkes’ O’Brien and Hunt’s Cohen-Greene are people that you are glad to find yourself spending time with. In fact, there isn’t a single performance in The Sessions that lets the side down. Certainly not Moon Bloodgood, excellent as O’Brien’s most recently employed carer and most definitely not Father Brendan, a priest who, according to William H Macy “believes his church is a place to talk about important things and sex is important.” Macy is an absolute joy in a role which sees him living vicariously through his friend’s experiences – at first distantly supportive, struggling to give advice, but later turning up at O’Brien’s house with beer to hear about the latest lesson.
The Sessions is a comfort film; one that you can watch and rewatch in the knowledge that it will leave you with a warm glow and a genuine love for all of the characters involved. Taking its lead from its lead it is sharp, sweet, mature and honest.
The Sessions is on general release from 18th January 2013