The topic of having sex with a disability has already been tackled at this year's BFI London Film Festival in Rust and Bone, and the subject matter surfaces again in this touching comedy-drama from Ben Lewin. Where Marion Cotillard's turn as a double-amputee was brittle and brutally honest, here the protagonist is a warmer, different kind of individual entirely.
Based on autobiographical writings of Mark O'Brien, it stars John Hawkes as a poet and journalist confined to an iron lung after a childhood bout of polio. At the age of 38, he decides he wants to lose his virginity so gets hooked up with sex surrogate Cheryl (Helen Hunt). As a strict Catholic, this leads to some comical confessions with Father Brendan (William H Macy), who conducts them in the full view of his congregation.
Cheryl's job is to help him feel comfortable with his body and provide him with the help he needs to establish meaningful physical relationships with future partners. What separates her from being a prostitute, she says, is that she doesn't seek return custom. They will have six sessions together and no more. Mark's growing attachment to his surrogate, and the reciprocal feelings that begin to develop with Cheryl, provides The Sessions with its strong emotional core.
Both Hawkes and Hunt are outstanding as the film's lead pairing, the former proving what a great actor he is by using just his face and voice. This is a mile away from his creepy, terrifying turn as Martha Marcy May Marlene's cult leader. Hunt holds her own, too, having to fully de-robe and shed her inhibitions to play the caring, sensitive Cheryl. It's a credit to both of them that, despite the unusual circumstances, their chemistry never feels like anything other than completely genuine.
The Sessions, dealing with the subject matter that it does, could so easily have swung into bleakness or cloying sentimentality, but writer/director Ben Lewin deftly strikes the right notes to create a charming little diamond of a film. It's great strength lies in its vehicle as a showcase for its actors, so expect some serious awards buzz for John Hawkes come next year's Academy Awards.
Photo gallery - BFI London Film Festival 2012 in pictures: