Sunday, 20 January 2013

The Sessions (15)

Sometimes a film ambles along that, while you know what it's about and you feel prepared for what's to come, completely sideswipes you.

The Disappearance Of Alice Creed was one. Tyrannosaur another. 127 Hours and Black Swan two more.

Now, granted, The Sessions can't be compared with any of those in terms of genre, but the emotional punch and after-effects have been similar.

And not just 'cos I'm British and we don't talk about these things...

For those who've missed the gist, a brief summary: Boy can't meet right girl and do boy-girl things as boy lives most of his life in an iron lung. Girl, meanwhile, specialises in helping people overcome bedroom issues by, you know, doing it. With them.

You wouldn't get that on the NHS. Not without a major court case.

In simpler terms, this is the true story of polio victim Mark O'Brien (played brilliantly by John Hawkes) who is unable to move from the neck down and lives in a metal tube when he isn't being wheeled around San Francisco by one of his helpers.

Still a virgin at 37, and having been asked to write a piece on sex and disability just after having his heart broken, he starts to wonder if he'll ever know a woman "in the biblical sense".

Fate takes an interest, one thing leads to another, and before you say 'she'll have to go on top, obviously', he's meeting with sex therapist, Cheryl  (Helen Hunt).

Based on the article he wrote about his experience, and told in part through confessions with Mark's priest (the wonderfully craggy William H Macy), we join Mark as he confronts his fears, his past and his future.

Now, if history has taught us anything, it's that Hollywood has a gift for making this kind of tale a saccharine mush-fest, glossing over any real emotional weight and just going straight for the sick bag.
Not here.

Heartstrings are tugged honestly, laughter is felt naturally. But there is no encouragement towards pity in what is a portrayal of the positive side of Mark's life - his quick, self-deprecating wit, his love of poetry, his ability to charm people.

Through Hawkes' marvellous performance we see Mark's transition from frustrated, almost school-boy innocence to a man who has experienced physical fulfilment.

But the film isn't solely about Mark's drive to join the massed ranks of other men his age.
This is also about Cheryl.

In lesser hands, this could have been a cumbersome role - but Hunt brings a subtlety and sensitivity to play that is tender and emotive, capturing perfectly the conflicting emotions that come in to force as the sessions progress.

And this isn't a two-horse race, either.

With two such strong lead performances, it would be easy to forget there are others who have something to add to the story - other people key to Mark's thoughts and feelings.

Along with a superbly-balanced supporting cast, the other star of the show is Macy, stumbling and mumbling along as Father Brendan - a man who seems to be struggling as much with his own faith as he is with what to say to a man on a gurney who wants to get laid.

This is a film that tackles a delicate subject (the sexual desires of those not always physically able to satisfy them) in a grown-up way, making us laugh as well as think.

I'd like to say more about the film, but I can't for fear of ruining the ending - suffice to say, I had something in my eye on a few occasions. Erm...

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