If you think ‘The Sessions’ is an unalluring title, consider what could have been: Australian-American director Ben Lewin’s deeply felt disability drama debuted as ‘The Surrogate’ at Sundance a year ago, switching to ‘Six Sessions’ shortly afterwards, before settling on its current dour identity. Quite why the powers that be couldn’t find a less medicinal-sounding appellation is a mystery, since none of those titles captures the tone of this spry, funny and frequently forthright film.
From a distance, you could be forgiven for expecting a maudlin disease-of-the-week biopic: paralysed from the neck down by polio, quick-witted poet and journalist Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) learns to overcome the odds, seize the day, embrace life, etc, etc. But it’s the nature of those odds that makes ‘The Sessions’ interesting, and even a little daring. It’s not a noble social cause O’Brien is fighting for here, but something more simple, fundamental and, frankly, personal: sex.
We meet O’Brien in middle age, his physical condition having left him prostrate in an iron lung for most of his life – denied any manner of sexual or even romantic activity, though not for lack of desire. Knowing his days are numbered, however, he bravely decides to take action; with the blessing of his kindly priest (a delightful William H Macy), he procures the services of professional sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Helen Hunt) to help him shake off the shackles of a 40-year-old virgin.
If that sounds like uncomfortable viewing, it isn’t: Lewin, who has fought his own lifelong polio battle, handles tricky material with a gentle, empathetic touch. Though he disappointingly falters by remaining strangely coy about O’Brien’s naked form (as his female lead, in patriarchal Hollywood fashion, leaves little to the imagination), he’s not afraid to mine the comedy in O’Brien’s often ungainly learning curve. Hawkes, a wonderful character actor finally enjoying the lead spotlight, warmly embodies O’Brien’s mix of naiveté and gallows humour, but it’s Hunt, richly deserving of her Oscar nomination, who impresses most as the unorthodox therapist trying to contain her emotional attachment behind her brisk professional reserve – and not much cover besides.