The Sessions Review

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Polio survivor Mark O’Brien (Hawkes) has battled to earn a university degree and forge a writing career, but he has never had sex. On a psychologist’s advice and with the blessing of his parish priest (Macy), Mark engages sex therapist Cheryl (Hunt) to le


What might so easily have been embarrassing, titillating or patronising is instead tender, nicely life-affirming and wryly, drily humorous — the story of journalist and poet Mark O’Brien, based on an article of his, and written and directed by 66 year-old seasoned TV director Ben Lewin, who survived polio with some disability himself. The Sessions, which starts when O’Brien is commissioned to write a feature about the sex lives of the disabled and it gets him thinking about what he’s missing, dares to tackle that part of life with extraordinary frankness.

The exceptional John Hawkes, who has belatedly received major recognition since Deadwood and his Oscar-nominated turn in Winter’s Bone, has a gift of a role and makes the most of it, mainly immobile on his back on a gurney and frequently in an iron lung or on a respirator. It’s all there, though, the desire, despair, complexity and beauty of a poetic soul who strives to experience as much as he can, including intimacy with another human being. The film’s big accomplishment is making everyone a real human, the tone well judged, the performances uniformly excellent, including Adam Arkin as Cheryl’s laidback husband (very 1980s Berkeley, California). Helen Hunt is lovely, warm and impressively comfortable in her skin, and William H. Macy is aces as the liberal Catholic priest and confidant whose compassion allows him to advise the devout Mark, “I think God would say, ‘Go for it.’”

But the journey, while sensitively done and undeniably moving, is a tad pat in an ‘inspirational, feelgood’ TV movie-but-with-nudity way. One cannot help but think, also, of other disabled-but-indomitable films such as The Diving Bell And The Butterfly, The Sea Inside and My Left Foot (Mark types with a stick in his mouth). Post-London 2012 Paralympics, people may be more aware of and sensitive to the hopes, dreams and capabilities of the disabled, but not absolutely everyone will want to know about sexual mechanics for the severely disabled in quite such clinical detail. Although, naturally, one is happy the man was able to get it on.

Formulaic but uplifting, positive and accessible. Fairly graphic sex is handled as tastefully as one is ever likely to see in a crowdpleaser.