Based on the journalistic writings of poet Mark O’Brien, The Sessions is a warm and witty account of his attempts to lose his virginity – at the age of 38. O’Brien (Hawkes) contracted polio as a child and is forced to spend much of his day inside an assisted breathing device known as the ‘iron lung’. Unable to walk and confined to a gurney for travel, Mark’s plight becomes apparent when we witness him being bathed by a home nurse. Unable to wash himself, he must suffer the indignation of being helped by a gruff, embittered woman who mutters things to the effect of “Polio patients are always the worst whiners.” Making matters worse, his perfectly functioning penis (and considerably sized, we’re told more than once) isn’t particularly choosy about a playmate. After several embarrassing bath time ‘accidents’, Mark, a Catholic, feels compelled to consult his priest. “My penis is speaking to me, father,” he informs a decidedly unorthodox William H Macy.
Mark forges a confessional bond with his priest during some of the film’s funniest scenes, and the pair thus form an unusual alliance. After much soul searching and one journalistic assignment on ‘sex for the disabled’, Mark happens on the idea to consult a sex therapist. Thus begins a funny, intelligent and soulful performance from Helen Hunt (Mad About You, As Good As It Gets), who it must be said is still looking lovely despite pushing 50, defying gravity in all the right places (in a way that Madonna doesn’t). As the breadwinner for her household of husband and teenage son, Cheryl is an experienced therapist who exudes both professionalism and kindness. Some questionable gender equality means that we never see Hawkes in his birthday suit, but the pair are well cast and have natural chemistry. Over the course of only six therapy sessions, Mark’s confidence blossoms, and their teacher/student relationship becomes more complicated.