John Hawkes and Helen Hunt excel as the romantic leads in Ben Lewin's delightful celebration of the human body.
Cinema tends to deal with disability through fantasy or cack-handed overcompensation. We’re too often served a rolling messiah like X-Men’s Dr Xavier or the wise-cracking emotional resilience of Damien O'Donnell’s wheelchair-bound heartmelter, Inside I’m Dancing. The motivation is admirable, but there’s the constant feeling that disabled characters like these remain ciphers for a writer’s message.
What gives 65-year-old Ben Lewin’s first directorial outing in 18 years a feeling of freshness is its willingness to confront the fear and loss experienced by its central protagonist even as the film plays out a warm rom-com narrative. It’s about a man and a woman and about how losing your virginity at whatever age is a bit like climbing a mountain. That peak where you long to plant your flag fills your consciousness. It seems insurmountable and becomes a source of fear, excitement and a place of imagined transformative power.
Lewin, who still suffers the effects of childhood polio, was looking for "tasteless material" about disabled sex for his sitcom idea The Gimp when he discovered poet and journalist Mark O’Brien’s article, 'On Seeing a Sex Surrogate'. In it, O’Brien detailed how, aged 38, he became determined to pop his cherry and become a proper man. The only obstacles in his way were a total lack of muscle control from the neck down plus the fact that he lived inside an iron lung. Other than that, this tiger was ready to prowl.
Lewin forgot The Gimp (perhaps wisely) and decided to film this story instead. O’Brien, on the rebound after discovering his sexy, kooky carer loves him but "not in that way" is serendipitously commissioned to write a story on disabled sex by a magazine. The job leads him to sex therapist Cheryl who acts as a 'surrogate' for her clients in a six-session programme that combines psychotherapy with all-the-way physical intimacy. During the course of the sessions that give the film its structure, drive and title – from Body Awareness through to O’Brien’s ascent to the summit of his sexual ambitions – we’re invited into a relationship of sometimes unbearable intimacy.
John Hawkes as O’Brien and Helen Hunt as Cheryl are fearless in their many nude scenes – no soft lighting or flattering cut aways here, but plenty of lines, sags and tan marks in rude daytime settings that emphasise the essential honesty of their encounters. Hawkes in particular is magnificent throughout and, although much has been made of the contortions he put his body through to approximate the realistic curvature of his subject’s spine, it will be on his and Hunt’s funny, truthful repartee that critical and commercial plaudits will rest.
Despite success at the Sundance Film Festival, The Sessions is perhaps too complex in tone and too workmanlike – or just too restrained? – in its visual construction, score and direction to find itself in line for any big awards. It is, however, an accomplished love story and, in itself, a transformative and touching correction to the notion that stories about the disabled are necessarily stories about disability.
Outstanding cast, but ‘issue’ films are best left to Hallmark TV.
Snappy dialogue and that magazine-feature structure make for a lean, incisive experience but it feels a little light at times.
Ah, here comes the thought-provoking part: three days after viewing, the film’s questioning generosity and sense of perspective will still be knocking around your head.