Sessions breathes sensitivity
IVEN that it’s based on the true story of a man with polio who spends most of his time in an iron lung, The Sessions is not as painfully heavy-handed as it sounds. And given that it’s about this man’s nervous attempts to lose his virginity at age 38, it isn’t as obnoxiously wacky as it sounds.
Instead, The Sessions inhabits a safe grey area somewhere in the middle. While it has some difficult and heartfelt performances and moments of uncomfortable honesty, ultimately writer-director Ben Lewin’s film feels too slight, too pat and somewhat overhyped.
The hugely versatile John Hawkes ( Winter’s Bone, Martha Marcy May Marlene) gives a subtly funny, impressive performance as Mark O’Brien, which must have been a massive physical challenge.
As the Berkeley, California-based poet and journalist whose 1990 article ‘‘On Seeing a Sex Surrogate’’ inspired the script, Hawkes is called upon to act entirely with his face and voice, frequently having to keep his torso still while lying down in a contorted posture.
Lewin – who also contracted polio as a child – lays out the details of Mark’s daily existence in matter-of-fact fashion and with zero condescension. He can breathe on his own for a few hours at a time and can turn the pages of a book or dial a phone with a stick in his mouth. He can’t move anything from the neck down, but can feel sensation.
Hence, his interest in visiting Cheryl Cohen Greene, a married sex therapist played with appealing directness (and loads of nudity) by Helen Hunt. Their body language sometimes literally reveals everything about them in the first of their six scheduled meetings, making The Sessions a rare film that addresses sexuality in such an unadorned, judgment-free way.
While the suggestion of a deeper romantic connection between the two feels forced, their shared sense of humanity and self-deprecating humour make their meetings compelling. Hunt radiates a kindness and decency that helps keep the film grounded.
William H. Macy gets some laughs as the Catholic priest who helps Mark reconcile his curiosity with his deep faith.
Overall, The Sessions is a nice story – but not one that’s told with any particular stylistic panache or emotional power.
Helen Hunt and John Hawkes in