A quadriplegic man sets out to lose his virginity in The Sessions, a frank, funny and immensely touching indie drama with two knock-out central performances and a considerable amount of mainstream crossover potential.
Formerly titled The Surrogate, the film, which became of talk of the Sundance Film Festival after scoring rave reviews and a seven-figure distribution deal with Fox Searchlight Pictures, began its life while Melbourne-bred writer/director Ben Lewin (Lucky Break) discovered Mark O’Brien’s autobiographical article “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate” while conducting research for a sitcom project.
Played in the film by the incomparable John Hawkes (Martha Marcy May Marlene), O’Brien worked as a journalist and poet after graduating from the University of California; quite an accomplishment given the bout of childhood polio that left him paralysed from the neck down, and unable to live for more than a few hours outside of an iron lung. At age thirty-eight, having never had a serious romantic relationship, O’Brien decides to visit a sex surrogate who can help him tick a box that has so far gone un-ticked.
Hawkes, who has garnered considerable acclaim in recent years for his steely, unsettling performances in films like Winter’s Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene, shows a different, more vulnerable side as the paralysed O’Brien, capturing not only his mannerisms – bowed posture and nasally voice – but his personality; a mix a nervousness, romanticism and self-deprecating wit.
Indeed, Lewin, despite the seriousness of his protagonist’s illness, has crafted a very funny film. Particularly amusing are the cutaway sections in which O’Brien discuses his progress with the progressive Father Braden (the always-charming William H. Macy; The Lincoln Lawyer), a Catholic priest who bestows Mark’s mission with a pastoral pardon, and whose own religiously-enforced celibacy makes for an entertaining if totally-unspoken counterpoint to that of his parishioner’s.
But where The Sessions really impresses in the scenes between O’Brien and his surrogate Cheryl. Played wonderfully by Helen Hunt (Soul Surfer) as an equal mix of down-to-earth and tender, the way she coaxes her inexperienced, terrified, religiously conflicted patient out of his shell is really touching. The depiction of intercourse is candid but never gratuitous or off-putting; ultimately, the film is more about the emotional implications of sex than it is about the physical ones.
If The Sessions has a flaw, it is that there is never really any conflict – the closest it comes are a few manufactured arguments between Cheryl and her over-protective husband (Alan Alda; A Serious Man). But this certainly never impedes your enjoyment of the picture, which succeeds thanks to its unpretentious script, top-notch performances and inspiring hero who refused to let his affliction make him a cripple. Expect to hear a lot more about this indie film charmer come Oscar season.
The Sessions will be in Australian theatres from November 8.
This film was reviewed as part of our coverage of the 2012 Melbourne International Film Festival. For more MIFF reviews, click here.