THE SESSIONS. Starring John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy Directed by Ben Lewin.
Rated MA 15 + (Sex scenes, sexual references and themes). 94 minutes.
Sex and the disabled.
This is not a topic frequently seen in films, although there have been a number about some persons with mental disabilities and their relationships. It is significant part of the recently popular, The Intouchables. This one is more probing, physically, emotionally, morally. It highlights the issues for a 38 year old man who virtually lives in an iron lung, his muscular system debilitated by his contracting polio at the age of six.
One of the factors which complicates audience response (especially for practising Catholics) is that Mark O’Brien has been brought up a Catholic and visits his parish priest, Fr Brendan, not exactly for Confession but for him to listen to his questions, his decisions and his experiences. He says he wants advice from Fr Brendan as a friend rather than as a priest.
The issue is that Mark wants to experience his full sexuality. He is put in touch with a sex surrogate who has a program of body awareness leading to full sexual experience, a limit of six sessions. Though exceedingly nervous, he begins the sessions, then follows through. Intercut with his experiences, are his conversations, quite frank, in church, with Fr Brendan.
The film, based on an article by Mark O’Brien, has been adapted for the screen and directed by Ben Lewin (Australian director of The Dunera Boys who himself had polio when young) who has not had a prolific career at home or in Hollywood. It is quite sensitively written, with a lot of humour, tracing the effect of the therapy on Mark, on the surrogate, Cheryl, and on Fr Brendan. The surrogate Cheryl Cohen acted as an adviser for the film, as did Susan Fernbach, a volunteer who was the love of Mark’s life.
John Hawkes, who has appeared in minor roles in many films but has stood out in Winter’s Bone (with an Oscar nomination) and as the cult leader in Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene, makes Mark a completely convincing character, a poet (because, as he says, he has to live most of his life in his mind), a writer, a man who blames himself for his young sister’s death because his mother had to focus on him so much, a man with a religious culture, and a man who experiences the ordinary sexual longings and desires and who lacks the opportunity for fulfillment – or, at least, fears there will be no opportunities. Much of Hawkes’ performance is in voiceover, telling his life story, recounting his feelings and reciting his poetry.
Helen Hunt brings an extraordinarily sympathetic presence to the role of Cheryl, seeing herself as a professional sexual surrogate rather than in any way a prostitute, with her own private family life. She is quite uninhibited, though restrained in her work, in being comfortable with her body, considerate for her clients. Again, she is not a character one sees often in films, which is a challenge to how we respond to her in theory and in practice.
William H. Macy spends most of the film as Fr Brendan, listening to Mark, making his judgments about morality and compassion with a priority on his sympathies before traditions of moral teaching.
There are good performances from several actors who portray the helpers upon whom Mark is dependent.
This is a sensitive, not exploitative film. However, it does raise moral issues concerning sexual behaviour which might seem easy to solve in principle but which require pastoral considerations as well.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
20th Century Fox.
Out November 8, 2012.