A true-story drama about a 38-year-old man’s efforts to loose his virginity, The Sessions is an unexpected gem: candid, touching and funny, and not the least bit salacious or voyeuristic. Journalist and poet Mark O’Brien’s quest couldn’t be further from the raunchy gags and giggles of The 40-Year-Old Virgin.
Paralysed from the neck down by polio at the age of 6, O’Brien (John Hawke) spends all but three or four hours a day inside an iron lung. He’s also deeply religious, a committed Roman Catholic. Which would seem to make an active sex life doubly out of bounds. Yet when he finally resolves to gain sexual experience, it’s with the blessing of his sympathetic priest (a wonderful William H Macy). He hires the services of sexual surrogate Cheryl (Helen Hunt), who agrees to help him explore sexual intimacy but limits their meetings to six sessions to reduce the possibility of emotional attachment developing between client and therapist.
Taking place in California in 1988, these sessions form the heart of the film and they are performed with admirable frankness and bravery by the stars. But it’s not just the nudity that’s impressive. Oscar-nominated Hunt brilliantly conveys her character’s mix of brisk professionalism and compassion, while Hawkes (unfairly snubbed by Oscar and BAFTA voters) captures O’Brien’s wry humour and charisma. Writer-director Ben Lewin, himself a polio victim, has created a film that is not just honest and eye opening about sex and disability, but which also contains universal truths about love and desire.