Focusing upon a brief period of sexual awakening in the life of severely disabled Californian journalist and poet Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), The Sessions is an amiable and largely enjoyable comedy drama. With its sturdy combination of moral compromises, character “learning journeys”, and occasional raciness, it largely cleaves to the bittersweet Indiewood template of stock Fox Searchlight fare (think Win Win, The Descendants).
Though The Sessions begins with brief video footage of the real O’Brien, we’re soon introduced to his representative on screen – John Hawkes. Confined to a bed as a result of severe polio, the romantically-inclined O’Brien (a virgin) is desperate for love, and has a tendency to fall hard and fast. He frightens off a beautiful, sympathetic assistant with a blurted declaration of love, and is able to feel only shame about his sexuality.
Also standing in O’Brien’s way is his Catholicism, which prohibits sex before marriage. Luckily (and conveniently), new-priest-in-town Father Brendan is the most liberal, easygoing priest you’re ever likely to encounter (at one point, he turns up at O’Brien’s house with a case of beer). Even more fortunately, he’s played by the brilliant William H. Macy, whose lived-in face – framed by an astonishingly lustrous strawberry mop – suggests a lifetime of compromise; you really believe that this man could be a pushover and a true believer at the same time.
O’Brien’s fortunes improve when a friend points him in the direction of professional sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Helen Hunt). Their liasons constitute the “sessions” of the title, and gradually move from affectionately transactional encounters to something deeper and more complex.
The horizontal Hawkes brings a real spark to the character of O’Brien, imbuing him with a keening wit and likeable underdog charm. Opposite him, Hunt delivers a fearless and empathetic performance, but her character is severely underwritten. This might well be because giving her more depth would open the floodgates to some serious grey areas. The troubling question of whether Hunt’s profession equates to prostitution is paid mere lip service, and her background is only briefly sketched in; growing up in a judgemental small town, she liked sex, and moved to California in search of liberation. It’s all a bit simplistic.
Furthermore, if The Sessions’ distinct lack of gentility is one of its greatest assets, the laser focus on sex as O’Brien’s chief concern also restricts the film’s scope, and makes O’Brien look more one-dimensional than he surely was. With everything focused on O’Brien’s attempts to get his rocks off, supporting characters are so thinly-drawn as to be cartoonish (by comparison, thematic cousin The 40-Year Old Virgin featured a whole host of skilfully drawn supporting roles), though the amazingly named Moon Bloodgood is solid as his trusty new assistant.
Overall, The Sessions is a well-acted and occasionally moving testament to the importance of living life to the full. It’s not without its problems, but for an engaging, uplifting night at the pictures, you could do much worse.
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