Film Review – The Sessions

The Sessions (MA)

Directed by: Ben Lewin

Starring: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy, Moon Bloodgood

Four and a half stars

Review by: Julian Wright

It is a sensitive topic. No one really talks about it. It is kind of swept under the rug. But it has probably crossed your mind once or twice. How do disabled people have sex? For some able-bodied people, sex can be easy, constant and taken for granted. But what about those who are wheelchair bound, or with disabilities who can sometimes be ostracized by society? Surely they still have sexual feelings and needs too that go unrecognised and unfulfilled.

That pesky rug has been ripped up and the topic tackled head on but in a sensitive manner in The Sessions, which explores the sexual longing of a man gurney-bound with polio. It is based on the experiences of journalist and poet Mark O’Brien who was struck with polio and hired a sex surrogate to help him lose his virginity in this 30s. While the plot sticks fairly closely to Mark’s real life experiences, what is impressive is the attention to character detail and the strikingly liberated attitude towards sex.

Mark (John Hawkes) is a charming and funny fellow who has lived with polio since childhood and in a horizontal existence in either his iron lung to help him breath or a gurney for trips outside his home. His muscles don’t work so good – well, except one muscle in particular. Like every other hot-blooded male, Mark has sexual urges but his condition means he cannot get close to women and he cannot masturbate. Racked with the thought of his impending death (he is lucky to have lived until his 30s), he begins to take steps to lose his virginity.

His nerves are at an all time high but he hires sex therapist Cheryl (Helen hunt) who specialises in helping disabled people. The wife and mother takes on the job like it is any other, and the two book in eight sessions in which they will work their way from the simple things like undressing and kissing in the early sessions to penetrative sex and orgasm in the final ones. But Cheryl, a complete professional, is not prepared for how attached Mark becomes and how much she comes to enjoy his company.

This incredibly open-minded, non judgmental, and often charmingly hilarious journey, is a pure joy. While sharing some minor similarities to French hit The Intouchables, this is less of  a feel good look at physically disabled people but nevertheless portrays them as human and gives them more deserved screen time.  The sessions that the title refers to are explicit and many may feel uneasy witnessing them (we do get to see a majority of the eight), but their frank approach to the topic is admirable. They boldly delve into this situation without any qualms. We see the arc of each session, the awkwardness, the humour, the sexual developments. Shying away from these sessions or toning them down to pander to an audience’s comfort level could have compromised its message. They are more than a couple of naked bodies, they are a celebration of human sexuality and the human form. But we also see this complex relationship develop.

The cast is brave and outstanding. Even with Hawkes physically restrained, he comes to life and leaps out of that iron lung and off of the screen in a performance that should be recognised at awards ceremonies. Not only does he make us believe the heartache of Mark’s plight but brings nuance and gives us many chuckles with his cheeky sense of humour. He is matched by Hunt, who has made few appearances on screen recently but has made a triumphant return to bare all physically and emotionally. Only the dramatically soggy ending lets this down. After watching such powerful performances and having some provocative themes and ideas brought to our attention, the ending, curiously, leaves us somewhat unfulfilled when we should really be sobbing relentlessly into our hankies.

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