Few contemporary American films seem willing to explore such delicate subjects as sex, disability or faith, so perhaps the first thing we should do with The Sessions is applaud it for attempting to tackle all three simultaneously with a refreshing frankness. Ben Lewin's film tells the story of Mark O'Brien (played by John Hawkes), a poet and journalist crippled by a bout of childhood polio, whose tale has already been told on screen in Jessica Yu's Oscar-winning documentary Breathing Lessons. O'Brien's illness left him largely paralysed from the neck down, necessitating nights in an iron lung to aid his breathing and days spent in a gurney from which he could write or make calls using a stick held in his mouth. The Sessions looks at this man and asks a simple but provocative question – how can a person in this position have sex?
That question is one most of us rarely – if ever – consider, but the very fact that The Sessions portrays its disabled characters as regular people, possessing the same urges and desires as anyone else, is enough to distinguish it from most pictures. Lewin's narrative focuses on Mark's decision, at the age of 38, that it was high time he lost his virginity. "I'm approaching my best-if-used date" he explains to local priest Father Brendan (a relaxed, amusing turn from William H. Macy), who he approaches for spiritual guidance regarding the question of sex outside marriage; "I have a feeling that God is going to give you a free pass on this one," the clergyman suggests. This is one of two key relationships in The Sessions, the other being with Cheryl (Helen Hunt), a sex therapist hired to help Mark achieve his goal.
Lewin is a polio survivor himself, and his screenplay for The Sessions is marked by a straightforward honesty and a sly sense of humour. Material that could have been maudlin or preachy instead feels remarkably alive, and the sexual encounters between Mark and Cheryl that form the heart of the picture particularly benefit from this approach. Hunt's down-to-earth demeanour and comfortable nudity goes a long way to alleviating the awkwardness – both Mark's and ours – of the film's many sex scenes. She is better in this role than I've ever seen her be before, and there's something wonderfully warm and caring about the manner in which she sets Mark at ease, before patiently helping him explore his own body and hers. For a person who has only ever been touched in order to be cleaned, moved or changed, these first instances of sexual contact are a revelation. It has been a long time since I've seen a film that is so matter-of-fact about sex, and what it can mean to people.
While its content may be bracingly unusual, the storytelling of The Sessions is very conventional. There are no surprises in its narrative structure, or in Lewin's bland, TV-like direction of it, and whereas The Diving Bell and the Butterfly overcame its protagonist's disability through a creative use of the camera, The Sessions feels as locked-down as Mark's body. Fortunately, John Hawkes mitigates Lewin's unimaginative staging by being such an astonishing presence in every scene. Using the only communicative tools available to him, his eyes and his voice, Hawkes brilliantly makes Mark come alive for us; we see his intelligence and wit, but detect no hint of self-pity for his current state. There's something wholly endearing about his desire to simply give and receive love, and it's impossible to not be moved by the way O'Brien overcame his disadvantages to live the fullest life he could.
It would have been very easy for a film like The Sessions to fall into cheap manipulation and hackneyed triumph-over-adversity uplift, but the tremendous performances and Lewin's sharp-witted screenplay allows it to avoid such pitfalls. Ultimately, The Sessions feels like a very honest and sincere film, and that in itself is enough to make it worth seeing, although there is one uncharacteristic moment of coyness that stands out. In a pivotal scene, Cheryl holds up a full-length mirror so Mark can see his own naked body for the first time in many years. It is a breakthrough for Mark, but Lewin's camera hides discreetly behind Hunt's shoulder, blocking the lower part of Hawkes' body. It's very satisfying to see a film tackle sex in such a head-on manner, but it seems there are still some taboo aspects of human sexuality that are simply too much for us timid viewers to handle.