Film review: The Sessions, starring John Hawkes and Helen Hunt
During awards season one's instinct would be to distrust a true-life drama of the disabled, particularly one about a man crippled with polio who hires a professional to help him lose his virginity – "My Left Nut", as it were.
Resist your scepticism, because Ben Lewin's film is a miniature of comic sweetness and sorrow. Mark O'Brien, a Berkeley poet and essayist, had lived with polio since childhood, confined for most of the time to an iron lung. (He can last for three hours a day outside it.)
In his late thirties and lovelorn, he decides to act upon his yearning for physical intimacy by contacting a licensed sex surrogate, who will initiate him via "body awareness" sessions into the act of love itself.
What might have been corny or exploitative turns out instead to be tender and desperately moving. Its achievement lies partly in the casting. John Hawkes, known hitherto as the gimlet-eyed meth addict of Winter's Bone and the super-creep cult leader of Martha Marcy May Marlene, is a revelation as Mark, gracious and wry as he looks upward from his contorted horizontal trap (I kept turning my head to look at his face), his feathery voice modulating between uncertainty and hopefulness.
Matching the mood is Helen Hunt as Cheryl, the woman who will conduct Mark through the explicit physical challenges of sex and us through the potential awkwardness of watching them. Hunt's breeziness doesn't always endear, but here it's just right, warm yet matter-of-fact in dealing with her client, not least in the way she explains how she's not a prostitute. She also goes bravely naked, unlike him.
Writer-director Lewin doesn't finesse it visually much above made-for-TV standard, but he works wonders in the margins, notably with William H. Macy as a hip priest trying to help Mark square his devout Catholicism with his sexual needs. He superbly suggests a sympathetic listener who's receiving too much information. And as Mark's poker-faced yet capable assistant Moon Bloodgood is quietly charming. It could all have gone so wrong – but it never does.
GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival
TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride
FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Man on naked bike ride gets ejected after becoming aroused
- 2 Caitlyn Jenner's mother Ester thought her daughter, formerly known as Bruce Jenner, had transitioned for money
- 3 Charles Kennedy 1959-2015: A gifted, compassionate politician whose career was cut short by the 'demon drink' - latest news
- 4 Ann Summers survey reveals the UK's favourite sex position
- 5 Ayyan Ali: Pakistan's top model now appears in the courtroom rather than on the catwalk
The 1975 leave social-media after cryptic comic strip tweet hinting at possible break up
Britain's Got Talent producers apologise for not making Matisse dog double stunt 'clearer'
Britain's Got Talent 2015 final: Jules and Matisse used secret dog double for winning tightrope act
Netflix is testing out adverts
Game of Thrones season 5 episode 9: 'The Dance of Dragons' sees Jon Snow return to The Wall after epic Battle of Hardhome
Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination
Migrants in Kos: Photos show real tragedy after Brits abroad complain of 'awkward' holidays
British tourists complain that impoverished boat migrants are making holidays 'awkward' in Kos
Michael Gove determined to scrap the Human Rights Act – even if Scotland retains it
Threat to scrap Human Rights Act could see UK follow Nazi example, warns UN official
Church of England 'one generation away from extinction' after dramatic loss of followers