The Sessions | Film reviews, news & interviews
Helen Hunt stars in a heartfelt movie that's not just about the nudity. Or the sex. Or the paralysis
"There's a lot of nudity in The Sessions." That's what people will be thinking - and maybe fearing while also being curious - when they consider seeing this uplifting drama. 'Do I really want to see a naked sex surrogate have naked sessions with a naked journalist crippled with polio? Isn't this going to be maudlin, or perhaps worse, Oscar-drama territory?' After all, the film won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival and we all know how 'out there' that could be.
But, instead of some half-baked Kenneth Anger/Warhol take on other people's problems, Polish-born Australian director Ben Lewin comes up trumps with a heartfelt, wholesome look at sexuality's meaning, using the life of Mark O'Brien as an example. O'Brien, a journalist and poet, was paralysed from the polio he contracted as a boy. Boys grow into men and O'Brien is no different. Although a staunch Catholic, he is unmarried and desperately wants to have sex. O'Brien is 'normal' - he just can't move very much - and this is what gives the story a different hue. Mark O'Brien could be any one of us - wanting sex to feel alive and natural but not knowing how to get it.
Hawkes deserved an Oscar nomination for what is an astounding performance
Enter William H Macy as Father Brendan, a groovy, thick-haired priest who listens to O'Brian's confession in the open area of the church (where words like 'erection' don't really fit in too well). Brendan is O'Brien's spiritual guide, reassuring them that God will understand if O'Brien has sex with someone who is not his wife. This is part of the film's charm: although set in Berkeley, California 1988, it feels earlier, more innocent.
O'Brien is a man you cannot dislike. He doesn't have a bad bone in his body, his only flaw is terrible taste in shirts. Thankfully, O'Brien is played by John Hawkes, an actor who has paid his dues in character roles and who rightfully surfaced with an Oscar nomination in Jennifer Lawrence's breakout film Winter's Bone. Hawkes is supremely talented and, like Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln, he went deep method to capture O'Brien's wasted look.
Helen Hunt, already an Oscar winner, has been nominated for another Oscar this year for her role as Cheryl, the private and somewhat privately bullied, sexual surrogate who comes to Mark's aid. It's not just the nudity that we like about her: its the fact that it's not a big deal to her that makes the role work. In truth, however, both Hawkes and she deserved nominations for astounding performances.
The supporting cast is also terrific - Adam Arkin as Cheryl's lousy husband, Moon Bloodgood, Rhea Perlman and Ming Lo (who proves there are no small parts) make this a delightful, innocent, pretty little film that deserves the audience attention it gets. In the end, The Sessions isn't about a paralysed man discovering sex is important as a part of humanity, the whole bally lot of us are reminded of that as well.
Watch the trailer for The Sessions
Subscribe to theartsdesk.com
Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £2.95 per month or £25 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.
To take an annual subscription now simply click here.
And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?
Teen horror with a kind but chilling heart
Boundary-pushing documentaries were among strong offerings in the festival's closing days
Woody Allen haunts Peter Bogdanovich's putative comeback
Swedish depiction of the collapse of male character will make you squirm
Edinburgh puts other festivals in the shade with an amazing array of female filmmakers
British cycling captured on film, from 1899 to 1983
Vienna, the zither, a twist of Lime: Carol Reed's newly restored noir masterpiece returns
Weak documentary about a transcontinental rail journey freighted with art 'happenings'
Masterful McKellen captures the great detective in his twilight years
Gael García Bernal is the stranger saving farmers from bandits in this jungle western
Breezy fantasia of Hollywood success will please existing fans of the HBO series but not win converts
Barbara Stanwyck cracks her whip in Sam Fuller's Tombstone power-struggle rethink