Where Silver Linings Playbook, the 2012-13 award season’s foremost US indie talking point, bedevilled its lovers with crises of the mind, The Sessions – adapted by writer-director Ben Lewin from the autobiographical writings of the late journalist Mark O’Brien – concerns itself with matters of the flesh: here, we have a protagonist inhibited from the neck down, and desperate to try a little tenderness.
Having contracted polio as a child, O’Brien was confined to an iron lung for the remaining thirty years of his life, pushed around – on his rare days out – by a rota of carers on a hospital gurney. We find Mark (John Hawkes) living in ultra-liberal Berkeley, California in 1988, where he’s starting to work through certain feelings he’d long come to suppress – chiefly, his fear of dying a virgin. His inquiries will bring him into contact with Cheryl (Helen Hunt), a sex surrogate assigned to him for a series of what are euphemistically described as “body awareness exercises”: six sessions, designed to cover all the bases from light petting to full intercourse.
A case study knocked into broadly cinematic shape, The Sessions has dropped onto our desks at a particularly apposite moment. Lewin’s film premiered at Sundance last January, yet it now emerges in the wake of a Paralympic year in which the world was encouraged to see those with disabilities as people first and foremost. Under the covers, Mark and Cheryl could be any guy-and-gal coupling tentatively embarking on their first time out; what you come away remembering isn’t the withered Hawkes’s thrusts or contortions, but O’Brien’s thoroughly unimpaired voice, alternately wry, sardonic, a little naïve, yet endearingly romantic.
Lewin has come up with a reliably funny way of describing those ins-and-outs of intimacy that cannot be shown in a Fox-backed movie: having Mark recount – or confess – the knotty particulars of these sessions to an initially laidback priest (William H. Macy, making a welcome return to the big screen) who soon realises he’s taken on more than he first assumed with this particular parishioner.
This is still very much a 15-rated handling of this material, offering little to shock or challenge the broad-minded viewer. Sunlight pours in on the lovers in the well-appointed motel room they adjourn to, and the sex act itself is reduced at one point, with the barest trace of irony, to inserts of kittycats and hands passing through long grass: something nice, not nasty. There’s little of the grit of 1992’s Hunt-starring The Waterdance, where the paralysed characters’ frustration couldn’t be so easily assuaged.
The Sessions instead takes its lead from the blithely, agreeably matter-of-fact Cheryl, a woman who, even as she’s removing her clothes, is briskly delineating the difference between a sex surrogate and a sex worker, and schooling her guileless client in the rules of breastplay (“if you touch one, you can generally touch the other”). The attention Lewin’s camera lavishes upon Hunt – going full-frontal, where Hawkes is coyly reduced to a neck peeping out from medical equipment or bedsheets – is presumably why The Sessions is making a stronger showing in the Best Actress category than anywhere else.
That’s a mite unfair on Hawkes, particularly as the film is at its sketchiest whenever Lewin attempts to open (or balance) out O’Brien’s perspective in contrasting Cheryl’s work routine with her strained, underwear-on relationship with a closed-minded fiancé (Adam Arkin). Still, it’s unusual and encouraging to see an American film this relaxed around the idea of intimacy: it’d make a swell date movie, neatly but affectionately negotiating what consenting adults might get up to behind closed doors, regardless of any mental issues or physical limitations.
The Sessions screens on Channel 4 tonight at 1am.