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The Sessions (4 stars)

Charming and gently moving story of a polio survivor and a sexual surrogate

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The Sessions

The Sessions is the true story of the poet and journalist Mark O’Brien’s experiences with a sexual surrogate. O’Brien was a polio survivor who spent much of his life paralyzed from the neck down, largely confined to an iron lung. As a consequence he remained a virgin until his late 30s. This surprisingly sunny and irreverent film is a snapshot of his life. It features a remarkable performance from the versatile John Hawkes as O’Brien while William H. Macy plays a Catholic priest who becomes the protagonist's unlikely confidante. Helen Hunt completes the trio of leads as the scholarly surrogate hired by O’Brien to provide him with a sexual schooling over six 'sessions'. The article he penned afterwards, 'On Seeing a Sex Surrogate', provided the film’s writer-director Ben Lewin with the inspiration for this story.

Rather than attempting to emulate O’Brien’s constrictive condition (a la The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) The Sessions is told as a compassionate, sunny remove. The approach might not be aesthetically daring but the result is pleasingly frank, as well as frequently funny. There are moments of poignancy but, be assured, Lewin deftly eschews mawkishness. As O’Brien, Hawkes couldn’t be further from the menace of his role in Martha Marcy May Marlene, or indeed Winter’s Bone and his irresistible awkwardness is nicely offset by the faux-severity of his assistant Vera (Moon Bloodgood). A charming and gently moving film.

Showing at London Film Festival Tue 16 Oct and Wed 17 Oct. On general release Jan 2013.

The Sessions

  • 4 stars
  • 2012
  • US
  • 95 min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Ben Lewin
  • Written by: Ben Lewin
  • Cast: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy
  • UK release: 18 January 2013

Mark (Hawkes, remarkable) is a writer and polio survivor. Paralysed since childhood, he's a virgin in his late 30s whose main confidant is his Catholic priest (Macy), but then he hires a sexual surrogate (Hunt). Based on a true story, it deftly avoids mawkishness and is pleasingly frank, funny and moving.

The Sessions trailer

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