The Sessions Review

, Saturday, 19 January 2013 00:00 Written by 
The Sessions Review
  • Director: Ben Lewin
    Writer: Ben Lewin
    Starring: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H Macy, Moon Bloodgood
    Run Time: 95 mins
    4 stars 

The true story of a polio survivor hiring a 'sex surrogate' to lose his virginity seems tailor-made for an awards-baiting Hollywood feel-good film. But in The Sessions, director Ben Lewin – himself a polio survivor – takes a frank, honest and adult attitude to the material, devoid of the pretentious cliché that could have marred the film.

The Sessions tells the story of Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes), a 38-year-old polio survivor who spends all of his time in a horizontal position – and a lot of it in an iron lung – unable to move anything below his neck. He isn't paralyzed, he can still feel, he just can't move. However this didn't stop O'Brien from graduating UC Berkeley and becoming a respected writer and poet. The one thing he hasn't managed to do though is have sex. After an ill-fated relationship with one of his carers goes awry, O'Brien settles on the idea of hiring a professional 'sex surrogate'.

Enter Cheryl Cohen Green (Helen Hunt). Though she has sex for money, she isn't a prostitute. She's more like a therapist who helps people overcome their anxieties about sex and feel comfortable in their own body over the course of six sessions, a deliberately limited number to avoid any attachment developing.

Cheryl's matter of fact attitude towards her own nudity and sex in general are much the same as the film itself. Lewin treats these scenes without a hint of eroticism and though Hunt spends large chunks of time naked and there are frank, explicit discussions about sex, nothing feels dirty or exploitative. A lot has been made of the reluctance by Lewin to show Hawkes in the same level of nudity as Hunt but that kind of detail would lead to a rating that would rule the film out of any awards contention and severely limit its audience. Besides, we see enough to get the point.

The breezy feel of the film is aided by excellent performances from Hawkes and Hunt who are both at the top of their game. Hawkes portrays O'Brien as a thoughtful and sweet man with a self-deprecating sense of humour that easily invites people into the film. He approaches things with wide-eyed curiosity but also trepidation and anxiety based on his physical disabilities and a large helping of Catholic guilt about what he's doing. This leads to some nice scenes with William H Macy as a cheerful and realistic priest.

Hunt, scarcely seen in anything noteworthy in about a decade, makes a huge comeback with her warm, down-to-earth and completely unselfconscious performance. Her chemistry with Hawkes is both easily natural and awkward at the same time, lending their scenes together an appealing spark.

It may be a small and slight film but that is part of the reason why The Sessions succeeds. Its ordinary and everyday feel makes for a fun and light look at the life of an extraordinary man. Lewin's direction feels perfunctory but that just adds to the warm, cheerful tone of the film. It may not be the most memorable of films but The Sessions will certainly leave a smile on the face without ever seeming patronising or cloying.

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