Film review: The Sessions

THE SESSIONS: John Hawke plays a lifelong polio sufferer and William H. Macy his priest-confidante.
THE SESSIONS: John Hawke plays a lifelong polio sufferer and William H. Macy his priest-confidante.

The Sessions, M, 94 mins 

John Hawkes will undoubtedly earn an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of the inspiring Mark O'Brien, a lifelong polio sufferer who used his three working muscles (one in his jaw, one in his foot, and one in his neck) to such great effect.

Struggling Australian writer-director Ben Lewin chanced upon a blunt, honest essay by the late O'Brien, an American journalist, on seeing a sex surrogate - to lose both his shyness and his virginity - and the discovery has subsequently saved Lewin from penury, with The Sessions earning a Sundance award and a studio bidding war.

It's not the first time O'Brien's story had been committed to screen - the documentary Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O'Brien won an Oscar in 1997 but more are likely to follow for this upbeat retelling.

Lewin follows O'Brien's story in a very linear, downbeat, almost television-documentary style, with Hawkes providing a voiceover, but that's not a bad decision with such a strong cast and powerful story.

Condemned to spend his time on a hospital gurney or inside an iron lung, we meet O'Brien in his mid-thirties, desperate to experience intimacy but wrestling with his devout Catholicism and the shadow of his dead mother. Given the nod by his forgiving priest, he finds a therapist who will go all the way - and their encounters are the heart of the film.

An emaciated Hawkes inhabits his role entirely, while Helen Hunt is superb as sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene and the rest of the cast, from William H Macy as O'Brien's priest-confidante and Moon Bloodgood as his taciturn attendant Vera onwards, are, without fail, above average. Both O'Brien's later partner Susan Fuhrman - who becomes almost a footnote as Lewin focuses almost entirely upon O'Brien and Cohen Greene's relationship - and Cohen Greene herself were consulted and approved; most audiences will too.


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