A movie showing a severely disabled man losing his virginity and co-starring William H. Macy as a Catholic father confessor? Could be a toe-curler. But rest assured: it’s mostly good.
Based on the life of Mark O’Brien, The Sessions joins O’Brien (John Hawkes) in his late thirties. His life is horizontal, perpetuated by an iron lung on which he has depended since suffering polio as a child. When he can, he writes poetry and is pushed around on a gurney, sometimes to church, where he explains to his local priest (Macy) his belief in a god with a wicked sense of humour.
And it’s to Father Brendan that he turns for approval when he mutes his need to experience intercourse before he passes his ‘sell-by date’. Sex surrogate Cheryl (Helen Hunt) is enlisted to help within the allotted space of six therapy sessions. Although they never all meet in one room, these characters and the actors playing them are aligned as three sides of a unique love triangle, plausibly representing and transcending the physical needs on which the movie turns.
Hawkes’ mobile features inevitably dominate but Hunt also gives a quietly courageous performance as a professional struggling to reconcile distance and proximity. The ending is a little sugary, but by engaging carefully and ceremoniously with the nitty-gritty of a grave condition, The Sessions is food for thought and constitutes, dare one say it, a welcome antithesis to Les Intouchables, this year’s other expedition into the minefield of physical disability.
The Sessions | Directed by Ben Lewin (US 2012) with John Hawkes, William H. Macy, Helen Hunt. Starts January 3