t h e s e s s i o n s
18th January 2013
Helen Hunt, John Hawkes
A film about a man severely disabled by childhood polio striving to have a sexual experience may not sound like the most easy watch but thanks to some standout performances by John Hawkes, Helen Hunt and William H Macy and sensitive direction by Ben Lewin it becomes a gorgeous warm and fuzzy experience. Tissues may be required...
The Sessions is based on the true story of Mark O 'Brien, a poet, journalist and childhood polio sufferer who is confined to an iron lung. Mark has a tendency to fall in love with his female helpers with heartbreaking results. At aged 38, Mark begins to start thinking about this lack of sexual experiences and when he is commissioned to do an article on sex amongst the disabled his experiences in interviewing disabled people about their sexual habits really sets the cat amongst the pigeons. Through a psychiatrist Mark discovers specialist sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen Green (beautifully played by Helen Hunt) and his sexual journey begins with both joyous and heart wrenching turns. Mark's confidante in this journey is his priest, Father Brendan, (the fabulous William H Macy) who gives some rather unorthodox advice to Mark and they form a beautiful friendship. Through his sessions with Cheryl we discover Mark has a lot of catholic guilt he is carrying around from his child hood which she helps him to deal with in an incredibly emotionally charged scene. Religion and guilt are the big themes of this movie but Lewin deals with the themes without hammering the audience over the head with them so it doesn't feel judgemental. Although Mark had a body that was twisted and useless his mind and his spirit were beautiful and it is not hard to believe that women fell in love with him.
The cast in this film are pitch perfect. John Hawkes is simply outstanding as Mark, the physicality or perhaps lack of physicality in the role demands some pretty great acting chops to elicit empathy and he certainly has those. Helen Hunt's Cheryl is a complex, multi faceted character who is taken by surprise at the force of her feelings for Mark, the sex scenes never feel gratuitous or hard to watch, instead are emotional and gentle; this is credit to both Hunt and Hawkes exceptional performances and Lewin's directing, it's easy to see this is a vehicle he understands and knows how manoeuvre. Hunt absolutely deserves the Oscar and Bafta nod, it's just a shame that she is the only cast member recognised. William H Macy plays Mark's priest and confidante, enjoying the story unravelling before his eyes as much as we are. Macy is the best damn priest I've ever seen, long haired, smoking, beer chugging and encouraging sex out of wedlock. I almost wanted to go to church, then I remembered it was just a movie. Phew. The technique of Mark telling the priest about his sessions with Cheryl works well as a device to move the story along and Macy and Hawkes are so great together it's an enjoyable and lighter part of the film. Scenes such as Mark on his gurney in the church telling Macy about his premature ejaculation are memorable to say the least. Moon Bloodgood's excellent turn as Mark's physical therapist also deserves a mention. The scenes where she accompanies Mark to sessions with disabled people talking about sex are particularly memorable, she's one to watch. Marco Beltrami has created a beautiful score, simple yet effective sums it up and it stays with you long after the movie is over.
Lewin himself suffered from polio as a child and had been struggling through various careers (barrister, jeweller and movie director) when it was suggested by his agent that he write about his own experiences. Whilst researching this he came across the article 'on seeing a sex surrogate' by American poet Mark 'O Brien and everything came together. It's obvious that being able to understand Mark's predicament would have helped Lewin's empathy in directing this film but he has also made a film which handles the role of female sex therapist in an entirely unpatronising way, I didn't have to shout 'bloody male director' at the screen once. This is the second film abot Mark O' Brien, the first was a short documentary film called Breathing Lessons, the life and work of Mark O'Brien' and won an Acadamy Award in 1997.
The Sessions presents uncomfortable subjects in such a beautiful way that it will probably make you cry but should also make you appreciate everything you have that little bit more.