Sex and disability are murky waters for film. How does a filmmaker depict sex involving disabled people without gawking or needlessly inflating the event’s significance? Films about people with disabilities often omit sex entirely—consider My Left Foot
or The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
. Scarlet Road
, a recent documentary about an Australian sex worker who specializes in clients with disabilities, is undoubtedly sex-positive and determinedly non-voyeuristic, but celebrates the central sex worker as a goddesslike savior for her clients. So I brought generous skepticism to The Sessions
, based on the true story of Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), a polio survivor who has spent most of his life in an iron lung. At age 38, Mark decides to lose his virginity and hires a sex surrogate to guide him through the deed. Hawkes is astonishing: He spends the entire film on his back, head cranked at a 90-degree angle and spine contorted, but his wheezy voice and expressive eyes convey deep wells of pain and self-consciousness along with biting wit. The scenes with the sex surrogate, Cheryl, played with bravery and guarded emotion by Helen Hunt, are surprising and affecting. Rather than glorifying sex or treating it with clinical coldness, writer-director Ben Lewin charts Mark’s quest with grace, warmth and wry humor. Lewin could have stood to give his unapologetically uplifting film sharper teeth—his characters seldom show frustration or anger—but he also, mercifully, does not paint them as faultless saints. And as central as sex is to The Sessions
, Lewin takes a balanced view: Is the act wholly earth-shattering? Perhaps not. But exciting, important, maybe even therapeutic? Yes—much like this film.