When you are writing do you work as a miniaturist, or do you prefer a sweeping canvas? Do you go large at every opportunity or hone in on the detail? There are pros and cons to both approaches, but I’m rather a fan of the small scale. I worry that if you describe a major event in an overblown way, you can strip it of meaning and resonance, whereas a single moment fully and subtly explored can become something epic.
That’s why I enjoyed Ben Lewin’s film The Sessions so much. With tenderness and reserve the film charts the attempts of Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), a polio victim in an iron lung, to lose his virginity – a rite of passage so many people take for granted but which for him is the unattainable grail of human intimacy. He seeks the help of sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt) who offers a rare kind of sexual service: professional, humane intercourse in a carefully managed series of therapeutic sessions.
Inevitably boundaries are blurred and emotional connections formed, and the ending is bittersweet, to say the least. It’s not a sentimental film, nor is it judgemental. Based on real events it is almost, but not quite, a documentary. What stops it slipping into mere actuality is a kind of mild radiance, the small light of the human spirit going about its work.
Helen Hunt’s performance is low-key and intuitive, full of unassuming generosity, but the plaudits go to Hawkes. For much of the time we only see his face, so in many ways he is working as a miniaturist too, but in that face every nuance, every flicker of experience is writ large. It’s a film about aspiration and achievement, about human contact and kindness – big themes examined through a small, and infinitely touching, lens.