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Byron Shire
May 9, 2021

The Sessions

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Film review by John Campbell

By chance, I happened to hear Julia Gillard introduce legislation for the new Disability Insurance Scheme into the House of Reps on the morning that I saw this upbeat but touching movie.

As a society, we feel pity when seeing those whose physiology has been attacked by the ‘sharks of fate’, but in general we only take notice of them when they are striving for gold at the Paralympics. It’s a sad reflection of our obsession with air-brushed beauty.

Based on the memoir of one such unfortunate, the eponymous sessions refer to the encounters that Mark (John Hawkes), paralysed since childhood by a severe bout of polio, had with sex therapist Cheryl (Helen Hunt). The 38-year-old poet spends most of his time in an iron lung – he can survive for only a few hours outside of it. Mortified by his uncontrollable carnal functions and driven by a primal need for erotic gratification, he decides to undergo the therapy that he has so long spurned. But first he seeks out the blessing of Father Brendan, his local priest (William H Macy).

That Mark so urgently desires what, by vocation, the able-bodied priest is forbidden is a sardonic juxtaposition – when Mark tells him that ‘she took my penis in her hand’, Brendan’s stony non-reaction is ripe with masochistic humour.

Mark is not wracked by self-pity or seething anger; Cheryl, a married mother, is pragmatic and detached. But the heart takes no account of the body in which it is encased, and veteran Australian director Ben Lewin’s softly-softly approach wades imperceptibly into deep emotional waters as the relationship between client and provider moves beyond their business agreement.

Hawkes (he was Teardrop, the hillbilly meth-cooker in Winter’s Bone) displays no overweening actor’s ego in an insightful and multi-faceted portrayal that frequently appears to be channelling Stephen Hawking, while Hunt, coping calmly with a number of nude scenes, is great as a woman who is belatedly made aware of her own vulnerability.

A lovely film – and, for cat people, the last shot speaks volumes.

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