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  Sessions, The It Could Happen To You
Year: 2012
Director: Ben Lewin
Stars: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy, Moon Bloodgood, Annika Marks, Adam Arkin, Rhea Perlman, W. Earl Brown, Robin Weigert, Blake Lindsley, Ming Lo, Rusty Schwimmer, Jennifer Kumiyama, Tobias Forrest, Jarrod Bailey, James Martinez
Genre: Comedy, Drama, BiopicBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 2 votes)
Review: Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes) contracted polio at the age of six, and that affliction left him unable to move anything except his head for the rest of his life. He needed a lot of care and attention, living for most of the time in an iron lung though he was able to spend around three to four hours out of the machine as long as he had an oxygen supply nearby, so he could attend church as he was a devout Catholic, mostly so he could have God to blame for his condition, though it was a spiritual comfort as well. In 1988, the new priest there was Father Brendan (William H. Macy), and Mark had an unusual question to ask him...

Except for most adults, it's not unusual at all. Helen Hunt was the connection between this adaptation of the real Mark O'Brien's essay about his decision to see a sex surrogate, that was a professional therapist who would allow him to finally lose his virginity aged nearly forty, and a previous film about the issues disabled men have with trying to cope with their natural desires when their body has seriously let them down. That film was The Waterdance, a cult effort which with humour and sympathy opened up the frustrations of the afflicted in an entertaining and poignant tale, based on the experiences of writer Neal Jimenez, who was himself handicapped.

The writer and director of this was Ben Lewin, who had been in the business for some decades but never really had a breakout hit internationally, that was until the story of O'Brien's search for sexual satisfaction caught his eye and he decided this would be a great idea for a film. He was correct up to a point, The Sessions was still stronger in some areas than others, but when it was at its best it took the bull by the horns and brought the sexuality of the paralysed out of the sort of ghetto where it just wasn't the sort of thing people talked about and rendered it difficult to ignore, making what was a very specific problem into something a lot more human, universal and even relatable.

You could understand why O'Brien would want to wave his virginity goodbye but also why it would be a mountain to climb when nobody reacts to him as an object of desire, not even when he admits to one carer, Amanda (Annika Marks), that he now loves her only to be faced with confusion and a breaking off of their relationship. When we're talking about a man who cannot masturbate but can achieve orgasm accidentally when he is being bathed by less than alluring carers, you can see why he has issues, and the film adds to that his Catholic guilt which might be a cliché but contributes humour to the scenes where Mark discusses all this with Father Brendan. The man of the cloth has difficulty with the idea that a member of his flock should have sex outside marriage, but then again cannot judge why God would prevent such a blighted man's happiness.

Enter Hunt as Cheryl Cohen-Greene, like O'Brien a real person, who guided men with various obstacles to sexual happiness to eventual satisfaction, though she stresses she is not a prostitute even if she is paid for her services. Sequences where the potentially embarrassing or inappropriately raunchy material are discussed could be awkward to get through, but Lewin and his excellent cast ensured the characters were more than aware of this, creating a tone both funny and frank. So far, so good, and The Sessions was shaping up to be a minor classic, but then he made a misstep in going all Hollywood on us by introducing a romantic complication as Mark gets too attached to Cheryl and she to him, making her partner (Adam Arkin) jealous with his poetry written to her, a bunch of melodrama the film didn't need and was getting along perfectly well without. Fortunately, such was the goodwill generated by what had gone before, and Hawkes and Hunt were so accomplished, that the film remained very easy to admire in spite of its faltering final act. Music by Marco Beltrami.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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