When Ben Lewin decided to make a film about a disabled man experiencing sex for the first time, he was careful to portray intimacy both frankly and affectionately.
Most love scenes are boring. A man and a woman kiss before they undress, and then the camera cuts away to them smoking in bed. Few movies depict the potential for physical awkwardness, and precisely how the bodies fit.
But the sex scenes in The Sessions, the new drama starring John Hawkes and Helen Hunt, aren't like that. From foreplay to orgasm, director Ben Lewin's camera never flinches from his characters during intimate moments. The film, which won the Audience Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival and a host of rave reviews, is, as New York magazine's David Edelstein put it, "a sexual coming-of-age movie"—one in which any audience member can recognize their own carnal hang-ups and triumphs. What's more extraordinary, though, is that it accomplishes that while telling a true-life tale of an extreme circumstance: a paralyzed man losing his virginity.
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How does Lewin, who has the same disability as the subject of his film, manage to make this very-specific material deeply universal? By working to make his protagonist come across as a real, fleshed-out person. His disabled man worries about and obsesses over sex in the same way we all do. His body frustrates him, and his feelings are familiar to anyone who's ever found what they mentally desire to be physically unattainable. "Clinical accuracy is not the message of the movie," Lewin told me. "I was taken by this man's desire for independence, for a physical and emotional connection."