Film Review: The Sessions

CARNAL CONFESSION: Polio-afflicted Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) discusses his newly-found sex life with his priest (William H. Macy).
CARNAL CONFESSION: Polio-afflicted Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) discusses his newly-found sex life with his priest (William H. Macy).

Polio-afflicted Mark O'Brien enjoys both a sexual and emotional awakening in the touching and very funny The Sessions.

Based on a true story, it recounts the anxious, heartfelt mission of the immobile O'Brien - who has spent the majority of his 36-years in an iron lung - to if not find love, then to at least lose his virginity.

Mark, played by John Hawkes, has a mind full of poetry and romantic notions but his body is crooked and withered, and he has a sense it will soon give out on him. He employs the services of a sex surrogate to assist his assignment of sexual discovery, and the counsel of his priest with whom he shares his hopes, fears and exhilaration.

The Sessions is buoyed by the nervous fumbling of first encounters, and its stark reminder of the power of sex and intimacy. We may not be able to identify with Mark's paralysed, horizontal life - he can only move his head - but most of us can likely recall the pressure, excitement, embarrassment, failure and triumph of early escapades between the sheets.

Mark's sexual education is a frank yet tender one, surrogate Cheryl (Helen Hunt) is straight-up in laying down the rules and objectives of their time together, but guides him with a gentle hand. The direction of veteran film-maker Ben Lewin is much the same; candid and caring.

A current of cheeky humour ensures the fly-on-the-wall experience isn't an awkward one for viewers - only the most prudish of movie-goers would be shocked or appalled by The Sessions' pound of flesh.

There is only to be six sessions with Cheryl, but that doesn't stop Mark from letting his heart get away on him, and even Hunt's character won't walk away from their sessions unaffected.

It's a cliché for actors to be applauded and awarded for portraying physically or mentally disabled characters. I'll just say Hawkes' performance is very believable and respectful and leave it at that.

Though his time on screen with Hunt is the focus of the picture, I couldn't imagine The Sessions without the thoughtful voice of William H. Macy's Father Brendan, who goes from awkward accomplice to Mark's plans to eager champion.

After negotiating the difference between a sex surrogate and a prostitute, Father Brendan determines ''I think God would give you a free pass on this''. After 90 minutes inside Mark O'Brien's world, most movie-goers would struggle to deny him a 'free pass' on anything.

Upper Hutt Leader