The Sessions is the true story of an intelligent and kind-hearted man crippled by polio and confined to an iron lung, and his belated belated coming of age through the means of a sex surrogate.
Portraying the tetraplegic Mark O’Brien is John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone). He brings the character to life in an accessible way that makes the story both fascinating and heart-warming. With a witty sense of humour, a drive and obvious charm he breathes an unbridled energy into a physically motionless character. One would expect a film of such nature to be downbeat, and while The Sessions isn’t exactly Disney, it maintains a highly positive outlook throughout. Writer/Director Ben Lewin achieves this through interweaving the main narrative with a confession by Mark to his new priest Father Brendan (William H. Macy), who provides a lot of the comic relief in being torn between complete compassion and the strict views of the Church he represents.
Helen Hunt’s phenomenal performance deserves every bit of praise, having been rewarded by Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for Supporting Actress. It would be too easy – and wrong – to fall into the age-old cliché of “you get naked, you get nominated”, but Hunt really is exemplary in the role. She conveys a gentle, fearless sexuality, excelling in the reflective moments away from O’Brien.
For an actress who I last remember seeing starring with Mel Gibson in What Women Want in 2000, this is a revelation that should lead to a resurgence in her career. Not that she was never a great actress, but the last decade was a quiet one after a string of 90s successes. (On a side note – I’d thought she’d actually retired from acting and gone to directing, e.g. The Beaver, which upon minimal research led to the realisation I have been confusing/merging Helen Hunt and Jodie Foster as the same person my entire life).
Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that The Sessions will have an Oscar win, with only one nomination and it being a category drenched in talent, with big names and/or blockbuster titles to go along side them: Anne Hathaway (Les Misérables), Amy Adams (The Master), Sally Field (Lincoln) and Jacki Weaver (Silver Linings Playbook).
In a film centred around sex, love shines through. Moments that could come across as awkward or unsettling to the viewer are in fact beautifully illustrated. Lewin’s sensitive direction and Hawkes’ dedicated performance deftly navigate what could have been a visual minefield and their work is without doubt the film’s highlight. The Sessions is not just about polio and the adversities faced by a man with such an affliction, but the conflict between family and church and sex. It’s an intimate and genuine affair; one worth going the extra mile to seek out.