The Sessions

Review by © Jane Freebury

Is it possible to get to know a woman in the biblical sense? That’s quite a question from a man whose encounter with polio at 6 had left him a quadriplegic confined to an iron lung. The question is directed at his priest, and quite an ask of him too, confined as he is by the church’s view of sex outside marriage. However, in this gentle, frank exploration of the possibilities of human intimacy, anything seems possible.

It had been many years since expat Australian writer-director Ben Lewin had made a fiction feature, when he came across the story of Mark O’Brien, an American poet and writer who died in 1999, who lost his virginity at the age of 36 during sessions with a sex surrogate. O’Brien’s story spoke to Lewin, not least because Lewin had also been incapacitated by polio too and still needs to use crutches, though it has not stopped him from building a life-long career in film and TV with credits like The Dunera Boys, The Favour, the Watch and the Very Big Fish and episodes of Sea Change.

You would think the subject of a relationship between the able-bodied and the totally disabled was a very big ask. How could it be done without the audience feeling uncomfortably voyeuristic? How would a frank approach work or would sentiment serve it better?

The Intouchables currently in cinemas starts out determined to avoid the pitfall of an excessive compassion. Rolf de Heer’s approach in his film Dance Me to My Song was remarkably frank in its time.

Lewin has gifted his story with a wonderful cast. Helen Hunt, who showed us a thing or two about relationships with difficult men in What Women Want and As Good As It Gets, is the sex therapist Cheryl, played much of the time completed naked. At 49, she looks amazing, though it would have been interesting to know more about how her character’s psyche, and why it was that she crossed the line with her client. As Mark, actor John Hawkes, the weirdo in Winter’s Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene, is very likable, keeping things buoyant with self-deprecating humour. Both characters keep things airily free of bathos.

The role of facilitating priest who gives O’Brien a ‘free pass’, with a ‘go for it’, is occupied by William H. Macy. His furrowed features betray the contradictions he may have experienced in free-wheeling 1970s California when the story is set.

The Sessions is a delicate, witty, heart-warming relationship comedy based on a very unlikely premise, where ‘the gimp’, as O’Brien once calls himself gets ‘the beautiful blonde’. It offers access to some very private spaces that any adult, of any age and physical condition, can relate to. A remarkable achievement.

In a capsule: A delicate, witty, heart-warming relationship comedy about a quadriplegic, a life-long victim of polio, who hires a sex therapist. Based on a true story, it is very frank, there’s full-frontal nudity, and despite the unlikely premise, is something any adult can relate to.

4 stars