John Hawkes puts in an astonishing shift as a polio victim who wants nothing more than to get to fourth base.
Able-bodied actors have long won plaudits for depicting disability in a manner that audiences and critics perceive to be authentic. The fact that disabled actors aren't given equal opportunity to portray physically and/or mentally impaired characters shows the level of discrimination that exists across the entertainment industry. That affront notwithstanding, you'd be hard pushed to deny John Hawkes every major accolade going for his astonishing central turn in The Sessions.
Thirty eight-year-old Berkeley poet Mark O'Brien (Hawkes) was left incapacitated from the neck down after contracting polio as a child. But despite being confined day and night to an iron lung – save a few hours a day when he runs errands with the help of a carer – Mark refuses to be ruled by his affliction.
Being that he's fast approaching middle-age, Mark decides the time is right to scratch an itch he's been unable to reach his entire adult life. It's time for him to get laid. After consulting with his priest (William H Macy), who offers some cautious but compassionate advice, Mark enlists the services of sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt) with the view to losing his virginity.
Over the course of six hands on sex ed sessions, the pair develop an increasingly intimate and mutually emotional connection, with Cheryl encouraging Mark to explore the machinery of the human reproductive system while doing her best to remain sensitive to his explicit shyness. That might read like a rather clinical explanation, but it's indicative of the strictly professional nature of their meetings.
Movie sex scenes tend to be steamy, glamourous affairs, but Australian writer/director Ben Lewin (who suffered from polio as a child) shoots these initially awkward physical encounters with a refreshing matter-of-factness. Cheryl is vastly experienced but has never worked with a disabled patient before, Mark is understandably prone to premature ejaculation. It's a complex relationship in many ways, but one that everyone will be able to relate to on some level.
For all that The Sessions tackles sex and disability head on, it is by no means melancholy. Quite the opposite. Much of the film's lightness comes from Hawkes' wry first-person inner monologue, which was in part lifted from O'Brien's 1990 article 'On Seeing a Sex Surrogate', the candid autobiographical essay that first inspired Lewin to examine sex and disability on film. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, the 2007 French drama told from the POV of Mathieu Amalric's paralysed stroke victim, is an obvious reference point to the film's use of introspective voiceover, although O'Brien's narration is both more eloquent and bittersweet (he is a poet, after all).
Against the his chiropractor's recommendation, Hawkes laid on a football-sized hard foam ball during filming in order to imitate the severe curvature of O'Brien's spine. It's this level of commitment that makes Hawkes, who hasn't put a foot wrong since 2010's Winter's Bone, a commanding presence here. Even when he's acting with his nostrils.