Labour Of Love

John Hawkes acts from the neck upwards

John Hawkes acts from the neck upwards

Title:                          The Sessions

Certificate:               15

Director:                   Ben Lewin

Major Players:         John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H Macy

Out Of Five?            4

The run-up to the major film awards means British cinemas are rammed to the gunnels with the main contenders.  Les Mis, Django and Lincoln are all great for the box office, but it’s sadly inevitable that somewhere along the line the big boys will push a smaller, unassuming but equally good film out of the way.

That film is The Sessions.  It is, I should say, up for an Oscar – but only one.  And it’s gathered a few award nominations along the way, mainly for Helen Hunt in the Best Supporting Actress category, as well as winning the Jury Prize at Sundance.  But the one thing it’s not is a blockbuster – and that makes it all-too-easy to overlook.

Having contracted polio at the age of 7, journalist Mark O’Brien is immobile apart from his head, spending most of his days in an iron lung.  At the age of 38, he decides losing his virginity is well overdue and, with the help of his priest and a therapist, he contacts a sex surrogate and starts his journey to manhood.

Inspired by real-life journalist Mark O’Brien who wrote a feature on his visits to a sex surrogate, The Sessions is the first major feature film from director Ben Lewin, whose career has hitherto been confined to the small screen.  And he’s produced a tender, sympathetic and warmly humorous film on a delicate subject.

Its primary strength is its cast.  The characters are beautifully drawn and the acting uniformly excellent.  As Mark, John Hawkes looks a physical wreck, but mentally and verbally he’s a man of great intelligence, wit and spirit with an endearingly wry sense of humour.  As he says, he spends most of his time living inside his head, which means that he is something of an innocent when it comes to relationships of any sort.  It’s a remarkable performance, given that he spends the entire film horizontal with his back contorted into an arch and his head turned to the right.  All the acting comes from his face and voice.  It’s a far cry from his sinister turn in Martha, Marcy May, Marlene.

There is real chemistry between him and Helen Hunt as his soccer mom sex surrogate.  Initially professionally detached, she becomes his friend and finds herself close to overstepping the professional line.  Their scenes together, which involve her being nude for most of the time, are tender and touching and not in the least bit awkward or embarrassing.

And who wouldn’t want William H Macy as their priest?  Compassionate and with a deep faith, he is down to earth to the point of being radical, arriving at Mark’s apartment minus dog collar, wearing a bandana and carrying a six pack of beer.  He is un-phased by listening to Mark’s confessions outside of the customary box – the trolley bed simply won’t fit.  However, when the descriptions of the therapy sessions become more explicit, some of the worshippers find them more than a little distracting.

The supporting players more than pull their weight.  Particularly worth watching is Moon Bloodgood as Mark’s longest-serving carer.  Initially taciturn and sulky, she slowly and subtly evolves before our eyes to be both understanding and practical – exactly the type of carer he needs.

Of course, a film is more than just its cast but in this instance they’re the difference between something that’s good and very good – and The Sessions is very good.  Director Lewin was also behind the screenplay, making the film something of a labour of love and its mature attitude towards relationships and sex, together with an unsentimental tone closer to that of British/European cinema, means it succeeds at every level.  And, just in case you start to feel too comfortable in its warmth, he provides an ending that is guaranteed to trip you up.

At any other time of the year, The Sessions would have received a wider distribution.  As it is, it’s been muscled out of the way by those with bigger budgets.  But if you make the effort to track it down, you’ll be well rewarded.  And you’ll probably find yourself questioning its lack of recognition.

This review is now available to download as a podcast: http://www.cyberears.com/index.php/Browse/playaudio/17911

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