With John Hawkes fast becoming everyone’s favourite actor, writer/director Ben Lewin had already done half of the ground work before shooting a frame. The fact that The Sessions is a touching dissection of the difference between sex and affection is nothing more than a glorious plus.
Mark (Hawkes), paralysed from the neck down by polio when he was a child, spends most of his life within the confines of his iron lung. Even with this restricting disability he has still become and well regarded journalist and poet. And when hired to write an article about Sex and Disability he starts to think about his own virginity and decides, through the help of a sex surrogate named Cheryl (Helen Hunt, and confiding in his priest Father Brendan (William H. Macy), to finally take that most intimate of plunges and have sex.
So unique in its outset, The Sessions opens up a smorgasbord of emotions that it beautifully and gently and lovingly details, meaning it’s never guilty of trying to manipulate its audience though the vulnerability of the subject. Analysing the mind during sex and the attachment that can come from the act, deconstructing the connection as well as the ethical implications and complications that might arise in Mark and Cheryl’s peculiar relationship. Respectfully sweet, it’s all done with a wicked sense of humour, completely washing away the taboo of sex, and sex concerning disability, showing that all first experiences are generally the same.
Hawkes of course is stunning; the way he contorts his body and dedicates himself to the role is a physical marvel. But it’s the depth of his performance that really grabs you, as does Hunt’s, whose awareness of the situation and Mark’s evolving feelings is as heartfelt as it is heart-breaking. And the fact that their acquaintance is limited to six sessions, and the idea that Mark’s happiness and connection to Cheryl is finite, just adds the underpinning sadness of the story. Although I use sadness very lightly, because the fact that he was able to have the experiences he did is a wonderful thing and it’s shown as such.
At its centre it’s a story about the strength of a man fulfilling his urges of intimacy that, with the help of an understanding and delicate woman, is able to have something he thought never possible. Brimming with love, Lewin’s superb film warms your soul, makes you laugh and takes you on such a personal journey that I challenge anyone not to be deeply moved by the end of it. One of the most touching and lovely films of the year.