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The Sessions is an alarming film, but not for the reasons it’s plot suggests. It’s not because of graphic, steamy sex scenes, or the fact that Helen Hunt bravely bares all to the camera. It’s because it handles the sexual nature of the story with tenderness and maturity. It rights all the wrongs left behind by the countless Hollywood films, that attempted to titillate with cheap sex scenes that have no meaning.
This isn’t an easy thing to accomplish, but it does prove to Hollywood that a grown-up film about sex can be done. And not just sex, but sex involving a severely disabled person. It’s certainly a subject that you don’t envy anyone tackling, but Ben Lewin’s film handles the subject matter with gentility, and rather extraordinary frankness. And it’s one of the few films you’ll see this year, or indeed ever, where a protagonist getting it on is a joyous and crowd pleasing moment.
Based on a real life story, Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) is suffering from polio, that has left him severely disabled. He’s unable to move his arms or his legs, and yet he’s devoted his life to becoming a writer. When he’s asked to write an article about how disabled people approach sex, he realises that because he’s been so devoted to carving out a writing career, he himself is still a virgin. Realising he may not have much time left, he contacts Cheryl (Helen Hunt), a sex surrogate who, over the course of six sessions, helps him lose his virginity.
One of the bigger injustices with the Oscar nominations has to be the absence of a Best Actor nod for John Hawkes. He has been one of the most underrated actors in Hollywood for some time, ever since he announced his presence in the superb TV series Deadwood. He’s an actor of tremendous versatility, and he certainly demonstrates that here. It’s certainly a physically demanding role (you try not moving a single muscle even when your instincts tell you to), and he’s still able to elevate the story in touching, and often funny ways.
It’s not only John Hawkes though who has to carry the story forward. Helen Hunt is also relied on to take some of the strain. As the sex surrogate Cheryl, she delivers a performance of tremendous tact and delicacy. She’s a very warm presence, and seems surprisingly comfortable during the scenes where she bares all, some of which have a considerable length. Cheryl herself is a very professional person, who lays out the ground rules for Mark before they begin; there will be no more than six sessions, and the intention is by no means to fall in love. Mark understands this.
There is some excellent support along the way too. William H. Macy is a particular delight as the liberal priest Father Brendan, to whom Mark confesses that he has a desire to have sex with a woman. While during the early stages Father Brendan is comically a little out of his depth with the topic of conversation, he eventually tells Mark that God would tell him to go for it. He tells him that even though sex outside of marriage is a sin to the Catholic Church, that God would grant him a free pass on this one. And so Father Brendan caps off some humorous scenes with a moment of joyous compassion.
It’s very rare in this day and age, when special effects often take centre stage, that two actors are called upon to carry the heart of a film, but director Ben Lewin knows that it’s in safe hands. Lewin is himself a survivor of polio, with some disability. No doubt he’s very aware that the script and characters are right where they need to be. Although, when you strip away the emotion and sensitivity, the plot itself is rather formulaic. Many people will also wince a little when lots of mechanical detail is divulged regarding sex for the severely disabled.
The sex scenes themselves though are handled very tastefully, regardless of how graphic they are. We never actually see any intercourse take place, and that’s really a wise move on Lewin’s part. He knows it’s the idea of what is happening that prevails. And in the end, The Sessions really does serve as a gentle reminder of what a unique and joyous experience sexual intimacy is, and illustrates that we wouldn’t really want anyone to go through life without experiencing it at least once. It’s a film that celebrates being kind to one another, without resorting to cheap or corny tactics. Certainly an achievement that deserves more than just one Oscar nomination.
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About the Author: Eric Wood is 21 years old, from Bury in Greater Manchester, and a graduate of Salford University where he studied Journalism and English Literature. His first novel comes out later in the year, and he begins work directing his first feature length movie in the summer. Eric absolutely adores all forms of writing and loves movies so he’s the ideal film critic. His greatest inspiration for many years has been Michael Crichton, as Crichton has written novels, non-fiction, screenplays, and directed movies. Eric would love to be able to achieve all of those things in my lifetime.