When you put the words ‘sex’, ‘drama’ and ‘comedy’ together, the last thing you would probably expect is a true-life story about a severely disabled man trying to pop his cherry. Not only that, you don’t expect to make their tale into an almost bittersweet story…with some nudity.
The Sessions is an independent film, adapted from an essay by poet Mark O’Brien (portrayed by Winter’s Bone John Hawkes), who was left paralysed by polio since childhood and requires an iron lung to survive. The film sees Mark, with the spiritual guidance of Father Brendan (William H. Macy), try to lose his virginity when he hires a sex surrogate, Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Helen Hunt), to do the dirty deed.
Written for the screen by Ben Lewin, who also contracted and survived polio, his reworking of O’Brien’s work brings personal meaning behind its development. With his fourth feature in this Sundance Audience Award winner, he brings a sensitivity to the material – choosing not to over-indulge in sympathy/pity and concentrating on the development and interactions between Mark and the supporting characters, particularly the conversations with the interviewees; they may bring an ‘oh my’ factor but nothing that really brings out a deep blush.
Hawkes is endearing to watch; his commitment to the role is admirable and he makes the character smart but not smug with his intelligence, bringing up his likeability by a couple of notches. Macy’s Father Brendan brings wit and unexpected comedy to a character that always seems to stick to the serious side of life and Helen Hunt’s brave and daringly comfortable portrayal as Cheryl brings her back to centre stage in her first critically acclaimed role since 2006’s Bobby.
In being an independent film, there is a simplicity of its style and structure that makes it easy to watch. The source material may be over 20 years old, but Lewin has able to keep the subject light-hearted and comfortable enough to see it sail through the awards season.
Sweet, witty and on the right edge of serious, The Sessions looks like an early 2013 audience favourite.
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