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A semi-paralysed polio survivor (John Hawkes) embarks on a journey of self-discovery when he decides to lose his virginity with a ‘sex surrogate’(Helen Hunt). Based on the real-life experiences of journalist and poet Mark O’Brien.
In 1990, Californian journalist and poet Mark O’Brien wrote an article titled ‘On Seeing A Sex Surrogate’. A childhood bout of polio had left him unable to move from the neck down and, at the age of 38, despairing of ever finding a woman who could love him physically as well as emotionally, he felt compelled to hire a ‘sex surrogate’ to help him lose his virginity. On paper, this could be the makings of a misery memoir. In fact, The Sessions is as witty and life-affirming as the writings of the man it’s based on.
John Hawkes (Martha Marcy May Marlene, Me And You And Everyone We Know) turns in an extraordinary performance as O’Brien. Using only his voice and facial muscles, he manages to convey the intelligence, humour and boundless optimism of a man determined to succeed in spite of the physical struggles he faces on a daily basis, and there’ll be plenty of people disappointed by the fact that he didn’t get an Oscar nod for his efforts.
The ever-dependable Helen Hunt plays sex surrogate Cheryl – a wife, mother and trained therapist – with the dignity the role deserves. As Cheryl stresses, she is not a prostitute – she is not there to provide momentary gratification, but rather to enable clients to feel both physically and emotionally comfortable with their own bodies, preparing them for intimacy with future partners. William H. Macy is on typically solid form too, both likeable and entertaining as the bandana-wearing Catholic priest who gives O’Brien the thumbs-up to fornicate (he thinks God will give him “a free pass” given the circumstances).
When it comes to on-screen sex, The Sessions breaks a few barriers. This isn't because one of the participants is disabled, but rather because the act itself is depicted with a warmth and humour rarely seen in a Hollywood movie. It’s also pretty graphic; Hunt’s entire body is shown in unflinching detail as her client learns to feel his way around the female form, and writer-director Ben Lewin should be commended for his bravery in tackling the potentially tricky topic of disabled sexuality, which he treats directly but sensitively throughout the film, never once patronising his subject.
Though The Sessions does at times feel like just that – a series of filmed therapy sessions, some more stimulating than others, the pluck of its protagonists and the empathetic portrayals of the actors playing them is likely to leave even the most cynical of viewers with a warm afterglow.
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