TIFF 2012: ‘The Sessions’ is quietly humble, yet raucous with pathos

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The Sessions

Directed by Ben Lewin

Written by Ben Lewin

USA, 2012

All animals have sex for reproduction. Some even have sex for pleasure. But human beings are distinct and distinguishable as the only species on earth that has sex for love. As a physical manifestation of our desires, and as a way of expressing an unspoken and indescribable amour fou, sexual intercourse is a unique and transcendent experience that goes well beyond the realm of the corporeal. That’s why we call it ‘making love’. In a sense, that’s what makes us human.

For Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), ‘being human’ has proven to be difficult. Mangled by polio as a child, Mark has been confined to an iron lung for most of his life and can only venture outside for a few hours a day, and only if pushed in a stretcher by an auxiliary. Immobile from the neck down, Mark can’t bathe on his own, answer his own calls, or scratch his own nose.  But that doesn’t stop him from living.

Through sheer will and determination, and by using a pencil to type with his mouth, Mark works his way through college, becoming a journalist and poet. Capable of doing almost anything any able-bodied person can, there’s still one human experience that eludes him – sexual fulfillment. He’s experienced love, emotionally and intellectually, but Mark has never experienced it physically. As a virgin, he’s never made love.

As a devout Christian, Mark seeks the advise of his pastor, Father Brendan (William H. Macy), who assures him that god will understand and look the other way. With that in mind, Mark seeks out a sex surrogate, a therapist who uses sex as a way of helping the patient understand their body and sexuality. He is able to find a surrogate named Cheryl (Helen Hunt), a no-nonsense and perceptive woman who helps him form a greater bodily awareness, but after each successive session, Cheryl and Mark develop something greater than their physical liaison; something much more pensive. Something a lot like love.

Inspired by the real life of Mark O’Brien, director Ben Lewin could’ve easily made a right mess of the film. He could’ve made it incredibly maudlin, incredibly self-serious, and incredibly lachrymose. Instead, bearing the subject matter, Mr. Lewin decides to imbue the film with humour, overcoming the tactful nature of the situation by bringing comedic levity.

Thanks to strong writing, and an especially sterling performance by the fantastic Mr. Hawkes, Mark is portrayed as snarky, self-deprecating, funny, charming and wry. Not to mention horny. He’s a real person, with a real personality. We get to know him as an individual, beyond the pretenses of his disability, and we come to fall for him as such; like some of the women in the film do.  We aren’t forced to sympathize with him because we genuinely care.

The rest of the cast is universally excellent, with Mr. Macy bringing an amazing amount of mirth by his mere inclusion, but special mention should be afforded to Ms. Hunt. She’s able deflect the seedy connotations in the script by elevating her character from being one-dimensional, making her Cheryl a believable and accessible person.

The biggest laughs in the film come from modest moments, usually an off-kilter or perplexing look of surprise. Characters are funny because they accurately represent real people, reacting to a strange situation in a real way. The Sessions finds humour in an unlikely place, much like 50/50, and the following catharsis is irresistible.

A comparison to the The 40 Year Old Virgin is assured, but to do so would be facile. Quietly humble, yet raucous with pathos, The Sessions will touch you in a way you didn’t think was still possible; like a virgin, for the very first time.

– Justin Li

The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 6-16

For more information and tickets, please visit the official website

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