I expected the insipidly titled The Sessions to be one of two movies. Firstly, it could have been an indie darling. Dished up to the swooshing Sundance Film Festival and the annual Little Miss Sunshine-worshipping crowd as a brave (meaning that the two leads are unsympathetically filmed in their fleshy birthday suits), and treacly (meaning, well, treacly) look at relationships and the woeful public perception of disability.
Secondly, it could have been a Judd Apatow movie. An overlong and ultimately unsuccessful exercise in balancing arcane screwball comedy about awkward sex, whilst still trying to say something prophetic about relationships and the woeful public perception of disability. Thankfully, The Sessions is neither of these things.
Based on the self-penned article On Seeing a Sex Surrogate’, it’s the true story of Mark O’Brien, a semi-polarized survivor of polio who spends his life being pushed around on a gurney by day, and sleeping in an iron lung at night. He’s accomplished a lot for a man of such limited physical capacity; charming character played by charming character actor John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone, Martha Marcy May Marlene), who acts his socks off without ever lifting a finger.
But there’s something missing in Mark’s life: sex. After a trepidatious hunt for the right service, Mark hires surrogate sex therapist Cheryl (Helen Hunt) to fulfil his needs. Like most fumbling male virgins, the road to sexual prowess proves bumpy (so I hear). Caught between a rock and a not-so-hard place, Mark seeks sexual advice in the laid-back catholic clergyman, Father Brendan (played by the ever-sagacious old owl, William H. Macy). Through the six sessions, Mark is sexually liberated, and his heartstrings are plucked.
It could have been a source for crude slapstick comedy, but director and adapted screenplay writer Ben Lewin doesn’t settle for cheap sight gags and befuddled pious figures. The unflinchingly presented scenarios are certainly humiliating, but more poignant then hilarious. When we do laugh, Mark is in on the joke, more often than not he is telling it; from his belief in ‘a god with a sinister sense of humour’ to jousting with the priest about sexual positions.
While Hawkes’ astounding performance comes as expected, Helen Hunt is the real revelation and beating heart of the film. Her Oscar nominated appearance as the naked counsellor is so multifaceted and melancholic. A career best for her, in so few words Hunt manages to detail how Cheryl gets just as much emotional connect out of ‘the sessions’ as Mark does.
It’s not twee, laugh out loud hilarious or deeply profound; it’s not even that remarkable. What Ben Lewin does deliver is a drama-comedy in the purest sense, filled with fantastic performances, an excellent script and an unashamedly feel-good factor at it’s core.