The Sessions (MA15+) – 5 stars
John Hawkes, Helent Hunt, William H. Macy, Adam Arkin, Moon Bloodgood
DIRECTOR: BEN LEWIN
REVIEW: SHANNON HARVEY
You'll like this if you liked My Left Foot, Sex, Lies and Videotape, The Graduate, A Beautiful Mind, The 40 Year Old Virgin
If this review was to start by saying The Sessions is about a man in an iron lung attempting to lose his virginity before he dies, you may decide not to see it. You may even decide to stop reading.
But don't touch that page just yet, because The Sessions is far, far more than The 40 Year Old Virgin in the Iron Lung. It's a true story about a man with polio for which merely breathing is difficult; imagine the physical difficulty sex would present. He's also a deeply Catholic man, too, so you can also imagine his moral conflict.
Yet little-known Australian writer-director Ben Lewin, who also had polio as a child, clearly relates to the taboo subject of disability and sex and ensures that The Sessions is neither sleazy nor saccharine. He doesn't tug on the heartstrings or use it as Oscar bait. He handles it with maturity, tenderness, frank honesty and just the right amount of pathos and wit. Not seeing it, in fact, would be your loss.
It's one of the year's best films and worth every one of the five stars I'm giving it. Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes) contracted polio at age six and spent the rest of his 49 years in an iron lung. He lives in a plain home with the help of carers who wheel him around on a gurney for the two hours he's allowed outside each day. He works as a journalist and poet for the Los Angeles Times, typing out his stories with a stick from his mouth.
What Mark really wants is to experience sex before he dies. "My penis speaks to me," he confesses to his priest and confidant Father Brendan (William H. Macy), who reassures him that "God will give you a pass on this one".
So Mark visits sex surrogate Cheryl (Helen Hunt) over six "sessions" that build from body awareness exercises to the climactic deed itself.
And fair warning; this can be confronting stuff, from Hunt's brazen nudity to the frank sex talk and terminology. But forget the disability part for a moment. Not even able-bodied movies have dealt with sexual intimacy and human connection in such a sweet, sincere, amusing and ultimately profound way as this.
O'Brien's fumblings may start as one man's quest to get laid but they evolve into the very essence of the human experience; love. It's about as moving as a movie can get. Yet The Sessions is not just about O'Brien's story. It's about the people he gently affects. Father Brendan - himself celibate - almost drools as he listens to Mark recount his sessions.
Cheryl is an academic with a husband (Adam Arkin) and a son, yet Mark soon breaks through her tough exterior and into her heart. We glimpse the lives of his carers (Moon Bloodgood), one of whom spurns his advance (Annika Marks) and one whom welcomes it later (Robin Weigert).
I've admired character actor John Hawkes for some time. He gave great support in The Perfect Storm, American Gangster and TV's Deadwood, and stepped into chilling lead performances in the acclaimed indie films Winter's Bone and Marcy Marla May Marlene.
So it's great to see him finally get the recognition he deserves for such a flawless performance here, lying on his arched back for the entire film and using a nervous voice and expressive eyes to make Mark much more than a victim. Hunt is equally good, playing Cheryl with a tough exterior and tender interior. It's not just about her full-frontal nudity.
It's the private moments where she shows her defences giving way that make it her best performance yet.
Lewin shot this tiny $1 million drama with no frills, from its modest 1980s sets and costumes to its plaintive score by Marco Beltrami. And it feels right. If it had had a bigger budget, showier actors or stylish directors, it wouldn't be the quiet gem it is.
Indeed, Lewin has delivered one of the most intimate and affecting films of some time. It won several awards at Sundance and deserves many more.