Good intent – The Sessions review

The Sessions – Starring John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, and William H. Macy. Directed by Ben Lewin. By Richard Haridy.

The Sessions played the Melbourne International Film Festival. It arrives in Australian cinemas November 8, 2012.

The Sessions is a tender, well-intentioned examination of a disabled man exploring his sexual identity, but sometimes a film needs more than just good intentions. Australian writer-director Ben Lewin delivers his first movie in 18 years and while it’s clear this is a very personal and important story for him to tell, the picture is ultimately too deferential to its central character and unwilling to bring any significant dramatic conflict into play.

The Sessions is based on the true story of Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), who lives his life paralysed from the neck down after being struck with polio as a child. O’Brien still has complete sensation over his body and spends much of his time in an iron lung. At the age of 38, O’Brien vowed to finally lose his virginity, hiring a ‘sex surrogate’ (Helen Hunt) to assist him in this journey.

Lewin, having suffered through polio himself, obviously empathises greatly with O’Brien’s story and Hawkes’ performance is charmingly gentle. Unfortunately, this sensitivity ends up being the film’s great weakness and The Sessions resembles a eulogy where no one dares say a bad word about the deceased. This results in a frustratingly vanilla portrait of O’Brien as an affable, wise-cracking cripple that everyone ends up falling in love with. Even his solitary moments are simply a guy in an iron lung making jokes with his cat.

Despite the one-dimensional simplicity of these moments, the frankness of the actual ‘sessions’ is refreshing. These sequences (played bravely by Helen Hunt and Hawkes) are some of the most candidly sexual moments I’ve yet seen in an American feature. Strangely enough, Hunt played an similar role – to much greater effect – 20 years ago with Eric Stoltz in The Waterdance.

The Sessions received a rapturous, and long, round of applause at the MIFF screening I attended and it is sure to be warmly received by audiences upon release but those seeking a serious insight into these issues should look elsewhere. The Sessions is a strangely bland combination of feel-good drama and sexual bluntness that is exasperatingly slight.


The Sessions played the Melbourne International Film Festival. It arrives in Australian cinemas November 8, 2012.

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