Watching “The Sessions”
Sex, disability and religion are three subjects mainstream movies tend to be skittish about, and the new film “The Sessions” juggles all three with seeming ease. This doesn’t mean that “The Sessions” is a great film — it’s not — but it is unusually candid and direct. It’s also funny, smart, interesting and extremely well acted, even during its weaker moments.
“The Sessions” tells the true story of Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), a Bay Area poet and reporter who is paralyzed from the neck down as a result of childhood polio, and uses an iron lung to breathe. While researching an article about sex and the disabled, he decides that he wants to experience sex himself, and is eventually referred to a professional sex surrogate, Cheryl (Helen Hunt). Sex surrogates are basically sex therapists, but in addition to discussing sexual problems with their patients, they are willing to engage in intimate contact with them to help them achieve their therapeutic goals.
O’Brien does not make his decision lightly: He consults his priest (William H. Macy), with whom he meets regularly, and when his priest gives him the go-ahead, he arranges his first appointment with Cheryl. Most of the film details O’Brien’s relationship with Cheryl, who is married and has a son and strives to keep her private life separate from her work, but director Ben Lewin (who happens to be a polio survivor) spends a fair amount of time with secondary characters, such as O’Brien’s attendants, Vera and Rod (Moon Bloodgood and W. Earl Brown), who get him to his appointments, encourage him, and speak openly about their own sexual experiences. Unsurprisingly, O’Brien finds himself growing attached to Cheryl.
Avoiding mawkishness is one of “The Sessions’” biggest accomplishments. They film isn’t overly sentimental or rosy, and it depicts O’Brien’s journey and daily life as one filled with joy, but also pain. O’Brien is depicted as a good man, but his disability is not portrayed as ennobling, or a blessing in disguise, which is refreshing. Cheryl is also an interesting character. She believes in her work, and her ability to help people with unusual sexual hang-ups or difficulties, but still finds herself challenged and occasionally overwhelmed by O’Brien’s need and condition. “The Sessions” is also populated with interesting secondary characters, such as the priest and Vera. We learn a great deal about the seriousness with which O’Brien takes his Catholic faith, and grow to appreciate the decency of his attendants.
Hawkes is a chameleon-like actor, as capable of radiating menace (“Winter’s Bone,” “Martha Marcy May Marlene”) as he is doing comedy (the TV show “Eastbound & Down”), and in “The Sessions” he transforms himself, revealing O’Brien’s inner complexity, strong moral core and occasional bouts of broken-heartedness. It has been a while since Hunt has appeared in a major movie and her return is a welcome one: As usual, she brings warmth and intelligence to the screen.
There are many ways in which “The Sessions” could have stepped wrong, and it mostly avoids them. The film manages to be sex positive rather than prurient, and manages to handle its delicate premise with tact and forthrightness. There were a few subplots I didn’t care all that much about, such as Cheryl’s home life, and her conflict with her husband over her relationship with O’Brien. However, most of the plot developments I questioned seem to be based in truth: For instance, I wondered whether Cheryl really became as attached to O’Brien as the film depicts, but in a recent interview she described O’Brien as “the bravest soul I have ever known,” so perhaps she did. I also wondered whether O’Brien really ended up falling in love and getting married after his sessions with Cheryl ended, because this development appeared almost too good to be true. But my research suggests that, yes, this actually happened. For the record, I think it’s OK for movies to take certain liberties when telling true stories, but it’s rare to encounter a film where the most unbelievable moments turn out to be true.
“The Sessions” is based on an extraordinary story, but the film itself is fairly pedestrian: Lewin doesn’t bring any great directorial flair to the project, and the movie follows a trajectory that will be familiar to anyone who has ever seen a moderately budgeted indie film about the personal transformation of an emotionally stunted character. But maybe this predictability doesn’t matter. The film is sensitive and funny and touching, and perhaps that’s all it needs to be.
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