The Sessions

“At the age of 38, Mark O’Brien, a man who uses an iron lung, decides he no longer wishes to be a virgin. With the help of his therapist and his priest, he contacts Cheryl, a professional sex surrogate. The Sessions, follows the fascinating relationship which evolves between Cheryl and Mark as she takes him on his journey to manhood.” IMDB

Here’s Guardian critic Phillip French’s enthusiastic review:

“Virginity – losing it, trying to lose it, trying to hang on to it – has been a constant subject of drama, literature and the movies, and handled variously as comedy, tragedy and complicated embarrassment. The Sessions is the remarkable true story of Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), a poet and journalist living in Berkeley, California, who’d graduated from the local university some years earlier and decides at the age of 38 that he wants to experience sex for the first time in his life.

The problem is that since an attack of polio at the age of six he’s been confined to an iron lung except for four hours a day when he can be wheeled around, stretched out on a gurney. He’s a good-looking, gifted, amusing man, less impaired than the French author with locked-in syndrome who wrote The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, but pretty immobile.

Fortunately Mark, a practising Catholic, has a sympathetic, unorthodox priest (the quirkily likable William H Macy), who helps him overcome his religious objections and urges him to “Go for it!” when sexual therapy is offered as a solution. He also has a kindly Chinese-American girl as a carer, and a wheelchair-born friend who helps find him a surrogate in the form of Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Helen Hunt), a married woman in her 40s with a teenage son.

Cohen-Greene is clearly a remarkable woman, and Hunt plays her with a common-sense kindness, intelligence, empathy and good humour that is beautiful to watch, and an unselfconsciousness about her own body that is initially breathtaking in its frankness before it becomes a form of naturalness of a rare, undemonstrative sort. The title refers to the six sessions she prescribes for her patient, and they do not go without considerable initial embarrassment on Mark’s part. There are also significant misunderstandings that result from him writing her a love poem that falls into the hands of her husband.

This funny, moving, beautifully acted movie avoids numerous pitfalls. It’s neither clinical nor triumphalist. It’s honest about desire and love and the need for sex, though perhaps somewhat judgmental about prostitutes when Mark comes to making rigid distinctions between the benefits of their services and those of a surrogate like Cheryl. The film is based on a magazine article by Mark called “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate” and on interviews with Cheryl and with Susan Fernbach, the hospital volunteer who became his companion, lover and literary collaborator for the rest of his life. He died in 1999, having lived years longer than anyone might have expected.

15 June 8.00 pm
THE SESSIONS [15] 95 mins 2012 US