Film review: The Sessions - If you see only one disabled-sex comedy-drama all year, make sure it's this one

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The Independent Culture

I can't understand it. I've scoured the list of Best Actor nominees for this year's Oscars, but can't find John Hawkes's name anywhere. In The Sessions, Hawkes plays Mark O'Brien, a journalist and poet who was left paralysed by childhood polio. At the age of 38, he's intent on losing his virginity, and his groovy Catholic priest (William H Macy) approves – well, this is Berkeley, California, in the 1980s – so he hires a sex surrogate, Cheryl (Helen Hunt), to teach him the ins and outs during several afternoons in a motel room. Conclusion: if an actor can't get an Oscar nod for starring in the true story of a disabled man and his life-changing therapist (see The King's Speech), something's wrong.

I can only assume that the Academy deemed The Sessions too enjoyable. All the material is there for a tearjerker stuffed with soaring orchestras and inspiring speeches, but Ben Lewin, the writer-director, has stitched that material into a short, wry, simply shot comedy-drama. It may be tremendously moving in its matter-of-fact candour, but The Sessions is a modest film – and that's quite something when you consider all the nudity. O'Brien has a sardonic sense of humour about his condition, while for his therapist, discussing a stranger's erogenous zones is just another day at the office. It's a rare film that emphasises sex and disability, while accepting that they're a normal part of life.

That's where the actors really deliver. Hawkes talks in a high, nasal drawl, and he's lost so much weight that, in some scenes, you'd think his clothes were empty. But his achievement is to make you forget his physical transformation and concentrate on O'Brien as a person. Likewise, Hunt reveals more skin than most actresses on film, let alone actresses in their late forties, but she's relaxed enough to shift attention away from her nakedness and on to her character's warmth and professionalism. Hunt, at least, is up for an Oscar.

Michael Winterbottom's new drama, Everyday, is even more unassuming. It stars Shirley Henderson and John Simm as a couple who would be happily married if it weren't for one detail: Simm is in prison. Henderson visits him regularly, usually bringing some of their four children, but there are no great revelations or confrontations when they meet. Nobody mentions what Simm's crime was, how the couple got together or what their plans are for the future. Nor does anything very thrilling occur between visits. Henderson just gets on with the job of taking the kids to school each day, and bringing them back to their council house in rural Norfolk.

It may not even be accurate to call Everyday a drama. Like many of Winterbottom's films, it has a fly-on- the-wall feel, with improvised dialogue shot in real schools and prisons. For added authenticity, it was filmed over five years, so the children (played by real-life siblings) grow taller and lose their milk teeth as the months go by. Once you accept the idea that there isn't going to be a jailbreak, you get an aching awareness of the ongoing strain of the family's separation, and you come to care about whether they can take it. But I was just as touched by the glimpses Winterbottom gives of the prison wardens' polite efficiency. Both The Sessions and Everyday celebrate unusual cinematic heroes: not secret agents or vigilantes, but people whose job is to treat others with patience and respect.

Critic's Choice

The tensions of well-heeled teenage life in Ireland come unravelled in Lenny Abrahamson's terrific What Richard Did, featuring a mesmerising performance by up-and-comer Jack Raynor. On a very different note, Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a lip-smacking, thought-provoking docu-portrait of a Japanese master chef.