Directed by Ben Lewin. Starring John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H Macy, Moon Bloodgood, Rhea Perlman 16 cert, limited release, 95 min
John Hawkes was snubbed by Oscar, but that’s the only bum note for a poignant film, writes TARA BRADY
Mark O’Brien, a So-Cal poet and journalist, was 38 and largely confined to an iron lung when, in the late 1980s, he decided to do something about his virginity. Following a few awkward, unintentionally hilarious exchanges with carers – polio had diminished his capacity for movement, but not his physical sensitivity – he discusses the matter with his local priest, a compassionate, floppy-haired fellow with exceptional listening skills. Finally, acting on a commissioned story about sex surrogates, he plumps for a sex therapist with specialised knowledge of specialised needs.
The therapist is married and unavailable but, over the course of the treatment, sparks fly anyway. Slowly but surely, Mark blossoms, becomes more relaxed around women and stops thinking things such as Holy mother of God: what are body awareness exercises?
John Hawkes is paralysed; Helen Hunt is perennially naked; William H Macy is a priest; Moon Bloodgood is frumpy and bespectacled; Rhea Perlman sports a tichel. Nobody could accuse The Sessions of typecasting. The biggest
surprise, however, in a film defined by such things, is that Hawkes, against all the bookies’ predictions, failed to make the Oscar shortlist.
Ben Lewin’s Sundance winner is warm and funny and generous about sex, the Catholic Church and just about everything in between. Working from O’Brien’s article
On Seeing a Sex Surrogate, the screenplay teams with droll wit and frank confessions.
Hawkes convincingly transforms his body and voice; his co-stars are all impressive. Ultimately, though, O’Brien’s humorous chronicles of sex and disability are what raise The Sessions over and above most awards-bait and Disease-of-the- Week TV dramas. Cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson’s use of sun-drenched tableaux and Marco Beltrami’s unexpected jaunty score add to the film’s sunny disposition.
If the Oscar-nominated Helen Hunt takes home the gong next month, it’ll be the second win for an O’Brien-themed project: the director Jessica Yu won in 1997 for her short documentary, Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien.
Who knew that a film about getting some could turn out so sweet and so poignant?