THE SESSIONS, based on the touchingly optimistic autobiography of Mark O’Brien, is about the quest of a paralysed journalist and poet to lose his virginity aged 38 (if you're expecting the 40 Year Old Virgin 2, think again).
It is set in Berkeley in 1988, and O’Brien (played by John Hawkes) is “probably close to his sell-by date”. Struck by polio aged six, he spends most of his time in an iron lung, unable to move from the neck down – not a state conducive to a life of passion. Deprived of the emotional and physical pleasure that romance brings, he develops a crush on his caregiver, only to discover his love is unrequited (bring tissues, you'll need them). Determined to finally lose his virginity, and with the help of his priest and therapist, he contacts a professional sex surrogate (Helen Hunt) who agrees to six sessions to help him “know a woman in the biblical sense”.
What could easily have turned into a maudlin portrait of a man living life in the prison of his own body is kept light by O'Brien's geeky humour (when asked for a favour, he replies “do you need help moving furniture?”).
The following are usually dead certs for an Oscar nod: extreme weight loss, extreme hair loss (see Anne Hathaway, not Demi Moore), battling with a new and difficult skill (ballet, piano, boxing), portraying someone with a disability or affliction (see My Left Foot, Rainman). And Hawkes, who has been dancing around the spotlight recently in more sinister roles (Winter's Bone, Martha Marcy May Marlene) is excellent as the film's protagonist. He masters O'Brien's physical disabilities, embodies his humour and vulnerability. It is hard to see why he was overlooked.
It was a joy to see Hunt (and you will be seeing a lot of her in this film) back in a leading role, and she more than earns the Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. William H Macy is delightful as the compassionate priest and friend who gives O'Brien a “free pass” for his new adventures, although he spends most of the film looking slightly bewildered (perhaps he was wondering if he'd accidentally stumbled into the Nicholas Cage school of dodgy coiffure).
Hunt and Hawkes perform effortlessly together – perhaps never meeting prior to production helped them create the visceral nude scenes throughout. Director Ben Lewin, a former polio sufferer himself, lightly breaks taboos, resulting in an authentic tale that celebrates sexuality, but is a little too light-hearted to be deeply moving.