Director: Ben Lewin
Cast: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy
Running Time: 95 mins
Release Date: 18th January
Based on a true story, The Sessions is a tenderly understated exploration of sexuality and disability as told from the perspective of poet and journalist, Mark O’Brien. Written and directed by veteran TV director Ben Lewin, the film features remarkably affecting performances from John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone) as Mark O’Brien and Helen Hunt (As Good as it Gets) as his sex therapist, Cheryl Cohen-Greene.
Having contracted polio at the age of six, Mark O’Brien lost most of his mobility – though not his senses – from the neck down. He was forced to rely on an iron lung (an artificial respirator) for all but a few hours of each day and spent his life horizontal on a stretcher. O’Brien had a sharp mind and attended University of California, Berkeley, where he transported himself to and from home with the aid of an electric stretcher. He became a respected poet and journalist and over the course of a short life touched the hearts of many. O’Brien’s widely celebrated essay On Seeing a Sex Surrogate forms the basis for Lewin’s film, while the film’s title refers to the number of sessions Mark may undertake with his sex therapist.
The film begins with the thirty-six year old Mark (Hawkes) at the mercy of an unsympathetic carer. A devout Catholic, he struggles with the moral implications of replacing her and seeks counsel from local priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy). With his priest’s (unofficial) blessing, Mark fires her and hires the lovely Amanda (Annika Marks) who he soon falls in love with. In time he proposes and with crushing inevitability she leaves to be replaced by the quieter, more pragmatic Vera (Moon Bloodgood).
Approached to write an article on sex and disability, Mark – a virgin – soon finds himself immersed in a world he knew little of and which, quite frankly, terrifies him. Aware of his own impending mortality, the still heartbroken Mark determines to lose his virginity. Emboldened by his research and encouraged by the uncomfortably conflicted Father Brendan, Mark agrees to meet with sex therapist, Cheryl. Over six sessions, Cheryl hopes to make Mark more comfortable with his body and to prepare him for future sexual experiences.
The scenes between Mark and Cheryl are remarkably frank and tender and as their sessions progress their affection for one another deepens. While their sessions are physical in nature, their psychological ramifications lead Mark to become more accepting of his condition and also to unburden himself of a deep-rooted guilt (he blames himself, or rather his condition, for his sister’s death). Filmed in a simple, straightforward fashion, The Sessions is a sweet, unshowy film complimented by strong performances and a light tone.