The human spirit is a quite remarkable thing; our innate ability to overcome great obstacles and keep smiling in the face of tragedy sets us apart.
Our greatest inspiration is often found from those with disabilities who overcome significant obstacles to achieve things they and we never thought possible.
Acclaimed poet and journalist Mark O’Brien was paralyzed from the neck down as a child after contracting polio and as a result was forced to spend the vast majority of each day confined to an iron lung to help with his breathing. Whilst interviewing other disabled people about how they found having and enjoying sex, Mark came to fervently envy them and became determined to lose his virginity.
This is the set-up for Ben Lewin’s warmly touching true-life drama based on Mark’s physical and spiritual adventure and the impact it and he had on those around him. A committed Catholic, Mark (played by John Hawkes) first consults Father Brendan (William H. Macy) about the theological quandary this poses. Taking into account Mark’s circumstances, he concludes the Almighty would in all likelihood give him “a free pass on this one”.
The stage is set for Mark to hire professional sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Helen Hunt). At first his fear and awkwardness is palpable, but as their sessions continue a tender bond develops between the two.
It’s a stone-cold fact that disability sells when it comes to awards season and it’s likely The Sessions will be recognised in the same way as The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, A Beautiful Mind and Forrest Gump before it.
That being said, not a cynical bone exists in the picture’s body. The largely excellent cast see to that, pulling back when histrionics could be reached for or emotional heartstrings pulled.
Given her strongest role in years, Hunt excels. It’s a brave, utterly believable performance of a person who comes to re-evaluate herself the closer she gets to Mark, whose article On Seeing a Sex Surrogate the film is based on.
After scaring the bejesus out of us with quietly menacing portraits of a drug-addicted killer and cult leader in Winter’s Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene respectively, Hawkes pulls a complete about-turn here as a man who gradually realises there’s nothing to be gained from punishing yourself for reasons beyond your control. His bright optimism hides a what-would-Jesus-say guilt and fear that erodes over time as he becomes more comfortable in his own skin.
In addition, Macy is on fine form as the sincere priest who forms a genuine friendship with Mark, while Moon Bloodgood’s poker face portrayal of Mark’s carer Vera nicely contrasts his heart-on-sleeve demeanour.
The warm hues used by Lewin (a polio survivor himself) reflect the cosy nature of the film, while Marco Beltrami’s soundtrack stays the right side of manipulative.
In many ways Mark’s preoccupations with sex, fear and religion are no different to many sections of American society, and while Lewin ultimately sides with the sexually liberated Cheryl’s mantra that we should “stop thinking about it so much” he never once pokes fun at Mark’s hang-ups.
The kind of film where a smile and a tear are never too far away from each other, The Sessions is uplifting cinema without the schmaltz and for that it should be congratulated.