Film review: The Sessions

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THERE’S a lot of sex in The Sessions, and even more talking about it in this ­biopic about poet, journalist and polio survivor Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) and his decision to lose his ­virginity, despite being in his late 30s and unable to move his arms or legs or breathe ­independently for more than a couple of hours at a time.

The Sessions (15)

Director: Ben Lewin

Running time: 95 minutes

* * * *

A Catholic, he’s been giving the church’s blessing – or at least that of an understanding priest (William H Macy), who agrees he should “go for it”, but where does a man go for the mating dance when he doesn’t have a feel for the rhythm? The answer for O’Brien lies with Cheryl (Helen Hunt, below), who works as a sex therapist concentrating on helping the disabled. She does this by sleeping with them, but as she explains while shucking off her blouse and jeans, she is not a prostitute, because she only sees clients for six sessions, to avoid emotional attachments.

The Sessions is directed by Ben Lewin, himself handicapped by polio when he was a child, and the result is a charming comedy drama. On the physical side, Hawkes spends the entire movie in a prone position, with just his facial expressions and a ­throttled voice to work with, while Hunt literally gives the kind of performance described as ­naked. Sometimes the film is chatty and static, and like sex with a stranger, sometimes the jollity of the banter feels a bit forced; a bit of business where Cheryl introduces Mark to erotic ear-rubbing for instance. There’s also a subplot involving the fetching Moon Bloodgood, as O’Brien’s pragmatic carer, that feels like well-meant padding.

While O’Brien’s difficulty at making connection is plain to see, there’s also a thinly sketched homelife for Cheryl, who is married with a son and a husband (Adam Arkin) who takes her for granted. Inevitably Mark’s grateful attentiveness creates complications.

Few movies are so frank about the sexual mechanics of the disabled, and even The ­Sessions feels compelled to ­soften a few details. Apparently O’Brien gets turned on by micturition, but the film backs off from going into detail as to how he might fit that into his day. Also, in real life O’Brien fell in love with men and ­women, and there’s nothing about that in the film either.

Still it’s a film that eschews easy sentiment and allows some wryness in the face of a fairly gloomy prognosis that Mark calls “my use-by date”. «

• On general release from Friday.