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.
TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice
Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites
TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Nigel Farage: Me vs Russell Brand on Question Time – he's got the chest hair but where are his ideas?
- 2 Harry Potter fans can apply to the Hogwarts-inspired College of Wizardry
- 3 Jessica Chambers: 19-year-old woman 'doused with lighter fluid and burned alive' in the US
- 4 Russell Brand calls Nigel Farage 'poundshop Enoch Powell' in BBC Question Time debate
- 5 Orange Wednesdays are no more
Peter Lik: The self-proclaimed 'fine-art photographer' whose work sells for millions
The best underrated Christmas movies from Love, Actually to While You Were Sleeping
Grace Dent on TV: The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies was a beautifully shot, immensely considered drama
The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies, review: Jason Watkins is brilliant, but real victim Joanna Yeates is reduced to a footnote
Marilyn Manson denies involvement in shocking Lana Del Rey rape video
Disgruntled RBS worker writes hilarious open letter to Russell Brand after anti-capitalist publicity stunt leaves him hungry
Shock poll shows voters believe Ukip is to the left of the Tories
Nigel Farage's approval rating hits 'record low' as popularity suffers in wake of Ukip sex scandal
Ukip candidate jokes about 'shooting peasants' in racist and homophobic rant
Pakistan school attack live: Taliban kill at least 132 children in 'horrifying' massacre
Germany sees 'visible rise' in support for far-right extremism in response to perceived 'Islamisation' of the West