Tuesday, 4 February 2014

The Sessions (2012)

The Sessions tells the true story of Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes), a poet and journalist who decides at the age of 38 that he wants to experience sex for the first time in his life. But this isn't 'The (Almost) 40 Year Old Virgin', the catch here is that O'Brien was a severely disabled man who, following an attack of polio at the age of 6, spent his life confined in an iron lung save for a few hours a day when he could be wheeled around on a gurney.

With help from friends including his daily assistants and carers (Moon Goodblood and W Earl Brown) his unorthodox and understanding local priest (William H Macy looking not unlike Hal Holbrook in The Fog) Mark finds a 'sex surrogate' in the form of Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Helen Hunt). The film follows the six sessions of the title that Cheryl provides helping Mark to achieve intercourse and prepare himself for the physicality of love with a significant other in his future.  Naturally these sessions do not go smoothly and are often a source of terrible embarrassment to Mark, which is where much of the humour arises.

It's unfair though to class this film in such a simplistic term as a comedy. It is in fact a frank and honest essay on desire and the need for love and sex we all feel. It is neither triumphant, depressing or deeply clinical and manages to avoid the bear trap of over egged sentimentality most of the time. It is heartbreakingly sweet and tender and as a bare bones depiction of sex surrogacy it is a glowing tribute to Cheryl Cohen-Greene, a  remarkable woman played by Hunt brilliantly. Infused with a realistic depiction of kindness, intelligence, empathy, common sense and good humour that one feels such a person in such work (or indeed any form of therapy) must have. It will surely rank as one of her finest performances -if not the finest performance of her career. This is the film that places Hunt back in the audiences minds after recent years in the wilderness. Yes, I guess initial reactions will be 'what has she done to her face?', but this is immediately forgotten because of the brave and unselfconsciousness display of her own naked body. It's very (and somewhat depressingly) bold and unusual to see a mature actress strip on screen - especially in natural lighting - but it is frankly breathtakingly candid here, or at least it is initially as soon it becomes an undemonstrative naturalness that is totally in keeping with the character she plays; a confident sexually aware woman giving of herself to help another and totally comfortable with her body and being naked. 

John Hawkes, a splendid character actor on the indie scene who I probably know best of all from Deadwood (and it's nice to see something of a reunion here with fellow former cast members Brown and Robin Weigert) is utterly sublime in the lead role of Mark. He plays Mark as a person first and foremost; a handsome, gifted, funny Catholic male rather than just a disabled character. It's an honest believable performance devoid of OTT tics and business that isn't spent with an eye on an Academy Award like so many others would have when approaching this role. It's to the credit of the project that he does what he does albeit perhaps ultimately to the detriment of him as an actor. How telling for example, that a film like Silver Linings Playbook the same year can get all the plaudits, Oscar buzz and awards for depicting a 'safe' less warts and all representation of a disabled man played by the easy on the eye 'star' (with all that that term entails) Bradley Cooper. Hollywood may like its disabled 'worthy' films around the awards season, but it tends to like them on its own terms.


  1. They love disabled people, just so long as they're not really disabled... :)

    1. Exactly - you put it so much better than I! I mean fairplay Hawkes is able bodied, but he's playing someone obviously disabled, having sex with an able bodied woman. I can't help feel that's a bit of a turn off for the Academy.