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Sessions, The


Stars: Helen Hunt, John Hawkes, William H Macy, Moon Bloodgood, Adam Arkin, Annika Marks, Rhea Perlman, Robin Weigert

Director: Ben Lewin

Talk of sex surrogates inevitably conjures up images of 1990s' US soft-porn films with the pneumatic likes of Shannon Tweed. This, though it never escapes a faint whiff of exploitation, is on a much more serious plane, and it's perhaps this that makes it quite difficult to empathise with the characters. And certainly some may find off-putting the graphic sexual detail used by the dialogue: it is, however, entirely necessary to the story.

Whether or not you find that story entertaining and worthwhile as a film is another matter, even if the situations are at times undeniably touching.

It is, of course, all true. Mark O'Brien (Hawkes), a poet afflicted by polio who spent much of his life in an iron lung, has already had his life explored in the Oscar-winning 1997 documentary Breathing Lessons. The Sessions focuses on a time when, in his late thirties, O'Brien - encouraged by his local priest (Macy): Mark embraces religion because 'it's good to have someone to blame' - hired a professional surrogate (Hunt) to help him lose his virginity.

Hawkes and Hunt (in one of the best performances of her career) skilfully negotiate the potentially embarrassing scenes that follow and expertly examine the progressive tenderness of their relationship. And Bloodgood is also very good as Hawkes' carer.

Perhaps the most effective and frightening scene in the film, though, is not one of sexual encounter, but a power blackout that deprives Mark of his lung protection for a potentially life-threatening period.

David Quinlan

USA 2012. UK Distributor: 20th Century Fox (Fox Searchlight). Colour by deluxe.
95 minutes. Not widescreen. UK certificate: 18.

Guidance ratings (out of 3): Sex/nudity 3, Violence/Horror 1, Drugs 0, Swearing 2.

Review date: 11 Jan 2013