Ben Lewin's hybrid of sex comedy, romantic melodrama and inspirational true story is the rare beast that actually evades most of the pitfalls of the three genres it draws upon. Doubly so because it is a film that deals with the sexual initiation of a severely disabled man yet is utterly repulsed by any thought of pity or condescension. Any doubts that The Sessions might be an exercise in bad taste or shameless tearjerking is quickly defused by both Mr. Lewin's confident scripting and efficient handling, and nuanced performances from a great cast that is less interested in grandstanding than in being truthful to its characters.

     It's the true story of poet and journalist Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes), a polio survivor paralysed from the neck down and requiring an iron lung to survive, who insisted on living as normal a life as possible and decides to lose his virginity and explore his sexuality through engaging with a "sex surrogate", therapist Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt), over a series of sex sessions limited to six to avoid any emotional entanglement. Mr. Lewin never plays the tale either for cheap laughs in the initial clumsiness of bodily engagement, nor goes for the easy pathos of O'Brien's disabled condition. Instead, he intertwines the plot with the role of religion in O'Brien's life, since he was a practicing Catholic who asked for the advice of his local priest (a garrulous William H. Macy) before doing the deed. And by focusing the film on the sexual initiation, the director actually defuses the matter of its lead character's disability and steers the story towards an adult exploration of sexuality as a perfectly normal, natural aspect of human relationships, albeit one that is regularly clouded by a guilt that must be taken out of the equation.

     That said, Mr. Lewin doesn't entirely control the tone of his narrative all the way through: the script still follows a rather traditional arc of fulfillment and resolution that belies its status as a fictionalization of a true story, while the realisation that both Cheryl and Mark have begun harbouring feelings for each other colours too much the film's second half as upscale romantic weepie. But the concept of love as a journey that should and does involve sex is a refreshing presence in contemporary American drama, done in a sweet yet clearly nuanced way, and benefitting immensely from the self-effacing, colourful performances of the leads. None more touching than Mr. Hawkes' tour-de-force as Mark, in a demanding yet effortlessly brilliant performance that focuses exclusively on his face and voice as conduits for the inner life of the character. If there weren't any other reasons, Mr. Hawkes alone would be worth the admission. Thankfully, there's a lot more.

Cast: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy, Moon Bloodgood, Annika Marks, Rhea Perlman, W. Earl Brown, Robin Weigert, Adam Arkin

Director: Ben Lewin
Screenplay: Mr. Lewin, based on the magazine article "On Being with a Sex Surrogate" by Mark O'Brien
Cinematography: Geoffrey Simpson (in colour)
Music: Marco Beltrami
Designer: John Mott
Costumes: Justine Seymour
Editor: Lisa Bromwell
Producers: Judi Levine, Stephen Nemeth, Mr. Lewin (Fox Searchlight Pictures in association with Such Much Films, Rhino Films and Dune Entertainment)
USA, 2012, 95 minutes

Screened: distributor private screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 12 (Lisbon), December 21st 2012


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