The Sessions is the moving, funny and true story of Mark O’ Brien a writer afflicted with polio who at the age of 38 decides that he wants to have sex. Although unable to voluntarily move anything below his neck he still has bodily sensation and the ability to get an erection. Given the fact that he has to spend most of his life in an iron lung, going to a bar and picking up a woman is out of the question, so he turns to a sex therapist Cheryl Green (Helent Hunt). During sessions with Cheryl he reveals that the obstacles in his life are as much psychological as physical.
Jonathan Hawkes is terrific as Mark portraying him as a person rather than a victim. He’s an accomplished poet with an acerbic wit who engages in amusingly acidic banter with his less sensitive carers. He also powerfully conveys the anxieties of someone who has questioned himself his whole life and is now taking on a daunting new challenge. The film doesn’t, however, go into great detail about his writing career.
As Cheryl, Helen Hunt again displays her ability to effortlessly play a sympathetic but emotionally complex character. She also displays a remarkable commitment to her character by appearing nude in many scenes. Another 90’s cinema stalwart William H. Macy also delivers a fine performance as staunchly catholic Mark’s priest and confessor. As this film is set in the 80’s Macy is also, amusingly, the street-wise, bandana wearing, basketball playing priest. The supporting cast are also uniformly good although the character of Mark’s stern carer Vera (Moon Bloodgood) is underdeveloped.
While the film is determined to show what Mark is capable of it doesn’t ignore the painful difficulties experienced by someone who had to spend most of his life in an iron lung and could only move his head. During a power failure he faces death from his iron lung shutting down and can only save himself by dialling a phone with a stick in his mouth. It makes our everyday difficulties seem pretty trivial.
The film’s honesty and insight into the character’s difficulties comes not only from the fine performances and Mark’s candid original article on which this film is based but also because of Aussie Ben Lewin’s thoughtful writing and direction. Lewin would appear to understand his subject better than most as he too suffered from polio early in life. Admittedly, Lewin’s no frills style gives The Sessions a low-key, telemovie look but this doesn’t detract from the film’s overall impact.
This intelligent, low-key film is a small gem and his rightly generated Oscar buzz.
Nick’s rating: Four stars.
Classification: MA 15+
Director(s): Ben Lewin
Release date: 8th Nov 2012
Running time: 95 mins.