The Sessions - trailer
A man in an iron lung who wishes to lose his virginity contacts a professional sex surrogate with the help of his therapist and priest.PT2M45S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-25gyp 620 349 September 6, 2012
(MA, 95 minutes.) Opens Thursday. ★★★★
Having been snapped up for a cool $US6 million ($5.8 million) following its double-award win at Sundance, Fox Searchlight has been carefully fanning the Oscar chances of this warm-hearted indie feature, formerly known as The Surrogate.
Written, directed and co-produced by Australian expat Ben Lewin, it tells of the real-life poet cum journalist Mark O'Brien and his determination to pop his cherry before turning 40.
Struck down by polio at the age of six, and largely confined to an iron lung, O'Brien's search for a sex surrogate - a therapist whose techniques include demonstration - ultimately proved successful and, to some extent, life-affirming. Aged 65, Lewin's own revived fortunes with the film provide a suitably apt addendum to the tale.
The writer-director - a polio survivor himself - stumbled upon the story while researching a politically incorrect sitcom about sex and the disabled (entitled The Gimp), which reached pilot stage in the US. O'Brien's essay On Seeing a Sex Surrogate - and the Oscar-winning short documentary that profiled him, Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O'Brien - also provided useful research material.
Lewin, whose respectable career in film and television hit a wall a decade ago, ultimately sought backing from friends and family, sensing he was on to something. He was right.
Oddball-for-hire John Hawkes (Winter's Bone, Martha Marcy May Marlene) inhabits the role of O'Brien with a wonderful blend of pathos and wit. Such was his commitment to the part, he even damaged his spine while playing O'Brien.
Helen Hunt - as O'Brien's sex surrogate, Cheryl - similarly goes for a deliciously measured performance, which includes her appearing naked for much of the film's tight running time.
Their sexual sessions are engaging, thoughtful and amusing. And, while they're far from gratuitous, Hunt, now aged 49, remains quite the head-turner in her bodysuit, which doesn't hurt. Given O'Brien's questioning of himself and of religion, the casting of William H. Macy as a local priest cum reluctant voyeur for O'Brien (and Terminator Salvation's Moon Bloodgood as O'Brien's compassionate aide) provides the icing on the cake for a film that squares off with its taboo subject with gentle aplomb.
It's commercial in its ambition but boasts a rare inherent understanding of its subject that would have been dumbed down in another's hands.