A festival hit, winning the Audience award at the 2012 Sundance Festival, and tipped for Oscar nominations, The Sessions is the latest film from director Ben Lewin. The opening scenes suggest that this is typically award-friendly material. Based on a true story, The Sessions’ main character is Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), a poet and journalist, who is paralysed from the neck down due to childhood polio. Despite having to spend most of his time in an iron lung, Mark, by now in his late 30s, has always refused to let his disability get him down, retains a fierce sense of humour, and works for a living. He also retains a belief in the possibility of love.
However, the movie quickly drifts into areas that feel significantly less obviously awards-friendly. As well as believing in love, Mark has a strong desire to experience sexual intercourse. When we meet him, his sex life has been limited to occasional inadvertent ejaculation during bath beds from his attendants, something that brings him only feelings of shame. On top of this, his strong religious convictions make him unhappy about the thought of sex outside marriage. However, after approval from his priest (my gut feeling is that He’ll give you a free pass on this one) he decides to explore the possibility of sex, and arranges to meet a sex surrogate (a practical sex therapist, that helps people with sexual dysfunction learn how to have successful intercourse “ with a view to helping them in future relationships). By now, The Sessions feels much less like classic Oscar fare after all.
In less capable hands The Sessions could have been a disaster, but it’s clear that Lewin did his homework. A former polio sufferer himself, he based the script on Mark O’Brien’s own autobiographical article On Seeing A Sex Surrogate. He also consulted extensively with the women in Mark’s life, including Cheryl Cohen Greene, the surrogate herself. Perhaps thanks to these efforts, the complexities of Mark’s character come through beautifully “ both warm and funny, yet fearful of the unknown. It’s this that creates the tone of the film “ life affirming, but acknowledging the pain as well as the joy in the world. That said, after reading O’Brien’s article, arguably the film ignores the pain a little too much.
Mark, and through him, the audience, experiences many ups and downs, but vitally, you don’t feel emotionally manipulated and the film never lapses into mawkishness. Much of the running time is spent in the bedroom, with the two leads partially or fully naked. It’s very matter-of-fact, especially about sex and about disability, which is quite refreshing. Both are treated as simple facts of life and the sex scenes are neither titillating and nor are we meant to be shocked at the idea of a disabled man having sex.
All Lewin’s work, however, would be in vain if his actors hadn’t been up to the mark. At the centre of the film is John Hawkes as Mark, who seems likely to get an Oscar nod for his work. Hawkes fully inhabits the role, to the extent that he apparently used a large piece of foam under his back in order to curve his spine “ an action that caused his organs to start migrating and could lead to permanent back issues. His dedication is evident in the performance he gives. Helen Hunt, as the sex surrogate is also excellent in a stripped bare performance, both physically and emotionally. Finally, William H. Macy as Mark’s priest is as brilliant as ever, even if his role is on the slight side, and the character doesn’t feel particularly believable.
In all, The Sessions is a rare thing, an uplifting true story drama that doesn’t make you leave the cinema feeling vaguely nauseous. Its Oscar buzz is achieved not because of its adherence to an awards-friendly template, but because of its many merits and it’s a film that deserves the audience that the talk of awards should bring it.