The Sessions, 2012, USA
The Sessions is the true story of the late Mark O’Brien’s (John Hawkes) quest to lose his virginity. He’s a polio survivor and unable to move more than his head, and is required to spend much of the day in an iron lung. Mark is inspired to lose his virginity while conducting research for an article about the sex lives of disabled individuals. Mark meets Cheryl (Helen Hunt), a sex surrogate whose goal is to get Mark more in touch with his body and sexuality, and ultimately, help him lose his virginity.
I loved the film. Hawkes and Hunt are both extraordinary, and William H. Macy is excellent in his small role as Mark’s supportive priest. Hawkes faced the enormous challenge of being unable to move much of his body, but he is so expressive and captivating to watch. He was charming, witty and delightful to watch. Hunt is excellent as well and absolutely deserves her nomination for Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars. It’s just a shame that Hawkes wasn’t nominated as well. Unfortunately The Sessions did not get nearly as much press as some of the other films nominated, and the Best Actor field this year is very strong.
The film understandably features quite a bit of nudity and (tasteful) sexual activity. This was handled with great sensitivity by director and screenwriter Ben Lewin, who is a polio survivor himself. Some of the scenes featuring sexual activity can be uncomfortable to watch, not because they are graphic, but because they are so intimate that I felt as if I was intruding on a private moment between these two people. The scenes are very honest and frank in their depiction of sex, including the challenges that came with Mark’s physical handicaps. However, most of the challenges Mark faced were emotional, including his struggle to reconcile his longing for sexual activity and his firm Roman Catholic faith. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that his greatest barrier in his quest to achieve sexual intimacy were the mental and emotional blocks he had.
The Sessions is often very humourous, and is ultimately a very touching film. It’s available now on Apple TV. I’m now curious to read the essay that this film is based on, as well as O’Brien’s other work. He sounds like he was a very interesting man, and his story is inspirational.