Lewin’s film is based on the life of journalist and poet Mark O’Brien, a Californian who contracted polio aged just six years old. Far from being just another sob story, Lewin’s film, though sometimes sad, is often witty, always respectful, and never cheesy, tired or clichéd.
The Sessions takes as its specific inspiration an article written by O’Brien himself, ‘On Seeing a Sex Surrogate’. We meet Mark (John Hawkes in a Golden Globe nominated performance), in his late thirties, still a virgin. His paralysing illness necessitates hours of confinement in an iron lung, and has thus far prevented him from experiencing the intimacy of a loving, sexual relationship which he craves.
Mark’s sexual anxieties lead him to consult sex surrogate Cheryl (Helen Hunt), a clinically and psychologically trained professional who helps him overcome both the practical and psychological barriers to experiencing sex. It’s from this decision that the film’s nuanced portrayal of conflicting desires and relationships is borne, giving The Sessions the power to surprise as well as to enthral as each character’s life becomes problematised in unforeseen ways.
Mark’s closest friend is his priest Father Brendan (William H Macy), who wrestles to choose between giving advice which will help make Mark happy or fulfilling his position in the church by following the Catholic view against sex outside of marriage. Macy’s depiction of this conflict comes mainly from his facial muscles; he is able to convey emotion so aptly as to make his performance both memorable and meaningful.
Despite the relatively short running time, none of the characters are neglected. As well as that of the protagonist himself, each perspective is given detailed and intelligent attention. Most notable is the treatment of sex surrogate Cheryl’s experiences, which may deviate from the truth but contributes to the originality of Lewin’s film, and gives Hunt the material to craft a sublime performance worthy of the award recognition it’s achieved.
Although wary that Mark’s attachment to her could become personal and romantic rather than merely professional, happily married Cheryl clearly didn’t expect to reciprocate these feelings herself.
There is no shortage of graphic sexual content, meaning the 15 certificate is warranted, but the film remains utterly professional and tasteful throughout. Lewin’s approach to sexual acts is as candid as Steve McQueen’s in 2011’s Shame, but the nudity is never gratuitous, and the camera never lingers too long over either Hawkes or Hunt.
The Sessions may not be technically mind blowing, but why should it be? Lewin, a polio survivor himself, has crafted an elegant film which tells its story in a simple yet consistently engaging manner. Unobtrusive stylistic devices combine to increase and aid the audience’s empathy with Mark’s unique situation; we often share his views of the trees above him as he’s pushed in his gurney-wheelchair, and dialogue overheard from off-screen emphasises his perpetual state of stasis and feelings of isolation.
As O’Brien reveals in his article, his sexual experiences with Cheryl did not combat his loneliness. However, the film’s nerve-wracking climax (no pun intended) is very different. Although beautiful and heart warming, the artificiality of the film’s end rewrites O’Brien’s life and death into a timely fulfilment which I fear can only be fictional.