Going to see THE SESSIONS which is a movie where the lead character is incapacitated by polio from childhood, was not my idea of a fun time. This genre I usually find to be maudlin, overly sentimental and with enough pretentious affectation that hopes/tends to resonate in the run-up to awards’ season. As this season is supposed to be the season to be jolly it was apparent this philosophy was not going to apply to our choice of movie. But His Nibs was keen to see it so off we went with me groaning inwardly.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. This is one of the best films I have seen all year.
I had not seen any advertising, reviews, or the episode that aired some six weeks ago of Australian Story on Ben Lewin the writer-director, an Australian ex-pat now living in L.A., and himself a polio survivor.
The Sessions is such a brave film, and I am not surprised one jot that the film makers had difficulty getting studio and film distribution money or guarantees. Hollywood has two major taboos when it comes to story lines for feature films. The first is having lead characters with a profound disability, unless they are a cute kid. The other taboo is any film taking a realistic, almost clinical, non-romantic take on sex. At the heart of this film is a story of a profoundly disabled person and his journey to discover all the ins and outs of sex in the optimistic hope of losing his virginity at 38. This film is the double whammy taboo film of taboo films multiplied by a factor of a gigillion.
What I didn’t expect was for the film to be so funny. From go to woe, this film will have you loudly chuckling at the combination of wit through the insightful observations of Mark, our hero, to the repartee in which he engages with all those with whom he shares his adventure. Of particular delight is William H. Macy who plays his local priest and unwilling, although increasingly intrigued, voyeur.
John Hawkes is Mark O’Brien, the journalist-writer-poet who starts his journey when commissioned by The Sun Magazine to write an essay on Sex and the Disabled. The stories he collects cause him to muse “Who are these people?” Their stories provide the catalyst for his own personal journey of sexual discovery. Hawkes is wonderful. You can understand how and why women fall in love with him. I did.
Helen Hunt is breathtakingly gobsmacking as the sex surrogate. She spends a large part of the film naked. Although she has a great body, her’s still obviously is the body of a nearly 50 year old woman. Her sessions with Mark and the relationship that results are important for both our leads. His journey becomes one for her too as she reassesses her relationships, her role and its importance. Her performance is gutsy. Her technique is so deft, so light in touch and nuance, and ultimately, heart-wrenching. Hunt is amazing.
There is no room for malarkey in this film. There are no fancy camera angles, soft lighting, mawkish music and fancy sexual choreography in the sex scenes. There is a truth that can be simultaneously confronting and delightfully engaging.
This film is a joy. There were a number of members of the audience who, quite frankly, didn’t want to leave the cinema delaying the process by chatting, laughing, crying. It is an up-lifting film dealing with two difficult subjects as seen through the eyes of one man. The film is given additional street cred as it is based on a true story. An essay written by Mark O’Brien entitled ‘On Seeing a Sex Surrogate’ was published in The Sun Magazine in its May issue, 1990.
If you miss this film you miss a gem. Apparently it is scheduled for the Moonlight Cinema during the Sydney Festival. It can currently be seen at the Dendy Theatre Quays. 1030am. 445pm Do yourself a favour and play hooky from work to see a great film. When was the last time you did that?
Mark O’Brien’s web page.
Mark O’Brien’s essay