this review originally appeared as part of our #tiff12 coverage
The diving bell and the 40-year-old virgin – ★★★½
The Sessions (previously known as The Surrogate, but changed due to similarities with the Bruce Willis action film from a few years ago) is based on the real-life story of polio-sufferer Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), a devout Catholic who goes on a quest to lose his virginity. The film is based on a newspaper article that O’Brien, a poet and writer, had published – “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate“.
O’Brien has full body sensations but is unable to move his body below the neck, meaning getting the ride is proving difficult. He seeks the counsel of a Berkeley hippie priest played by William H. Macy and decides to enlist the help of Cheryl, a sex surrogate (a therapist who works with a patient by initiating a sexual relationship) played by Helen Hunt.
It becomes quite obvious early on that Lewin and his cast opt to play the dark material for laughs. This is quite a relief, as many films that deal with disabled protagonists opt for pity and misery over the actual dark humour that can be found in dealing with one’s condition and unique abilities. O’Brien’s existence could be perceived by an outsider as a miserable one, but his faith in God and the strong bonds he forms with his carers (both male and female) allows him to find a real comfort in his life – once he isn’t thinking about sex, which causes considerable anxiety. Some of the interplay between O’Brien and Father Brendan during the confessions is really hilarious and the irony of a celibate priest listening to a middle-aged virgin discussing his new-found sexuality is not lost on anyone.
The film has more in common with Judd Apatow’s The 40-year-old Virgin than you would imagine, but it is really John Hawkes’ performance that gives the film its emotional core. When the film premiered at Sundance last January, he was already being pegged for awards consideration and it’s not hard to see why. He spends large parts of the film inside his iron lung with only a respirator tube or drinking straw for company but still delivers all the self-deprecating one-liners with aplomb. His physical performance and characteristics when he is really only able to “act” from the neck up show that the man who was a revelation in Martha Marcy May Marlene and Winter’s Bone really is the real deal.
A final word for the recently Oscar-nominated Helen Hunt. After being one of Hollywood’s leading women in the late 90s with strong performances in Twister, Castaway, What Women Want and of course her award-winning performance in As Good as It Gets, she has been missing in action for the best part of a decade. The 49-year-old’s performance here is quite brave as she shows she is not afraid to bare it all for the camera when necessary. Once the setup is complete, the film’s surrogate “sessions” where O’Brien and Cheryl have to get down and dirty run through most of the film and could have been awkward and cringe-inducing if not handled as well as they were.
So with the uneven tone and pacing, the film becomes all about the performances. It’s a powerful story but thankfully Lewin tackles it in a light-hearted fashion and shows audiences that regardless of ability or experience, sex and religion are pretty damn funny subject matter.
USA / Directed By: Ben Lewin / Written By: Ben Lewin / Starring: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy / 95min / Comedy, Drama / Release: 18 January 2013 (Ireland, UK), 19 October (USA)