views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

The Sessions (15)
Apollo, Piccadilly
13th January 2013


It's fairly easy to exploit disability to yank on the heartstrings of the moviegoing audience. Whether it's the mental, in the masterful Rain Man (or conversely "going full retard" à la I Am Sam) or the physical, in the sublime My Left Foot (or I Am Sam's blind brother At First Sight) it can be an easy, hack draw. Of course, people overcoming obstacles is the whole point of a story - you can't have a tale without conflict - but writers and directors seem to make success against the odds purely about the protagonist's actual handicap rather than creating well-rounded, compelling characters.

That's why The Sessions is so fresh and so damn affecting. Ostensibly a film about a man whose disability stems from childhood polio and ends up living in an iron lung, the actual struggle lies in Mark O'Brien wearing his heart on his sleeve, too eager to give love. Shamefully overlooked in the mainstream awards, John Hawkes entirely embodies optimistic poet and disability campaigner Mark, pouring his heart and soul into what are purely facial movements. Spending the majority of his time on a gurney or in his mechanical prison, his expressive eyes doing the work of twenty Pacinos.

Based on a true story, writer/director Ben Lewin follows Mark as he attempts to lose his virginity to professional sex surrogate Cheryl (Helen Hunt), aided by Father Brendan (William H Macy), his cool priest, and his assistant Vera (Moon Bloodgood). In both Hawkes' emotional performance and Ben Lewin's lightness of touch, Mark becomes a whole person who it's impossible not to want to befriend, despite being endearingly naive. That eventually proves both to be his downfall and grant him a kind of bittersweet peace, as he professes his wholehearted, unconditional adoration to a number of women, including former assistant Amanda (Annika Marks) and Cheryl.

Lewin's film is made even more special by the wildly different writing and directing styles. In what is in essence a love story, with Mark's artistic soul given free reign, it's also unflinchingly explicit. Hunt's courage (or perhaps not, given her body for a woman pushing 50) to spend most of the film giving Lewin full-frontal shots was the physical manifestation of a script that didn't avoid discussing sex in lurid detail. He keeps each of the plates spinning perfectly in time, before the inevitable emotional smash-up at the film's end.

As far as the rest of the cast goes, well, Macy (always worth your money, obviously) provided a nice dryness as the beer-swilling and surprisingly liberal Father Brendan and contrast to Hawkes' honesty and vulnerability well. Hunt's Cheryl adds the coarseness, free both with her body and words, and Adam Arkin as her husband Josh brings depth and understanding to a typical alpha-male. Bloodgood's sarcasm as Vera rounds off the cast to provide an almost orchestral effect, each providing something distinct yet different, coming together for a brilliant tune.

Until this film, I never knew of Mark O'Brien and his work. And the final scenes, in a non-spoiler spoiler, made me incredibly upset I would never get a chance to meet him. It's certainly enough to know he finally received as much love as he gave - the kind of love he would no doubt give to this breathtaking and poignant tribute.

The Sessions was released in the UK on 18th January 2013.

Nearest tube station: Piccadilly Circus (Piccadilly, Bakerloo)

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