Sessions, The (United States, 2012)

November 01, 2012
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Sessions, The Poster

Back toward the beginning of her career, a then- 29 year old Helen Hunt appeared in a movie called The Waterdance. The film dealt frankly with the way disability impacted the sexual relationship between her character and the one played by Eric Stoltz. The sex scenes were raw, graphic, and unsentimental. Now, 20 years later, Hunt finds herself in similar territory. In The Sessions, she plays a sex surrogate - a therapist who helps a profoundly disabled man to achieve orgasm through penetration. Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes) is a victim of polio - his skin retains full sensation but his muscles are useless. He cannot voluntarily move anything below his neck and he must spend most of his day in an iron lung. At age 38, he is a virgin and, concerned that his "sell by" date is approaching, he is determined to alleviate the condition. Enter Cheryl (Hunt), the sex surrogate. As in The Waterdance, the sex scenes are raw, graphic, and unsentimental. And, although the films have different goals and travel paths that are not always similar, they are in many ways spiritual cousins.

The Sessions is rare (at least for an American production) for the open, matter-of-fact way in which it explores sexual matters. Writer/director Ben Lewin does not approach the subject as if it's a taboo; disabled people are just as sexual as non-disabled people - something often forgotten in the rush to marginalize them. Sex is, after all, one of the basic drives of the human animal; The Sessions treats it as such - nothing more, nothing less. When Helen Hunt undresses, it's done casually. The camera does not seek to eroticize the moment; there is no big "reveal." Likewise, no attempt is made to hide body parts via intentionally obfuscating camera angles to provide the illusion of privacy. Characters also discuss sex frankly - another aspect of The Sessions that sets it apart from common mainstream fare.

The movie likely answers questions many viewers might be too embarrassed to ask about the mechanics of how disabled people engage in sexual acts. (Before embarking upon his "therapy" with Cheryl, Mark interviews various less-than-able bodied people about their sex lives for a newspaper article he's writing.) It's interesting, but perhaps unsurprising, how creative men and women can be when something matters to them.

The Sessions contains its share of melodrama, not all of which works. The emotional stakes of Mark and Cheryl's therapy are elevated when "transference" and "counter-transference" occur. Both individuals recognize they are developing romantic feelings for one another and they are aware this isn't a good thing. It raises the age-old question (and the converse of one posed by Billy Crystal): Is it possible to have sex with another person without the affection thing getting in the way?

Although the majority of the movie focuses on the interaction between Mark and Cheryl, there is a third character in the mix. Catholic priest Father Brendan, played by William H. Macy, belongs to a liberal wing of the Church found only in movies. Brendan is a useful narrative device; we get to know what Mark is thinking and feeling without having to endure an internal monologue. But accepting Brendan as anything resembling a real-life priest requires one to have had limited interaction with such men. The Catholic Church, however, may applaud Brendan's characterization because this is a rare instance in which a priest is presented as a good, caring individual - even if his doctrine runs counter to Church teachings.

The Sessions is based on a true story, but feels no need to advertise this fact. The reality and honesty of the situation infuses John Hawkes' performance. Forced to do all his acting with his face, Hawkes displays the kind of camera-arresting capability that has earned others Oscar nominations. The word "courageous" will be used repeatedly to describe Hunt's performance, since it's rare for an American actress of any age to show this much flesh. Moving beyond her clothing (or lack thereof), she develops Cheryl as a considerate woman who becomes increasingly conflicted about the blurring of lines in her relationship with Mark.

The film's ending is a little abrupt - it perhaps could have benefitted from a few more scenes before the epilogue, but The Sessions provides a window into an aspect of the world from which most viewers are insulated. It affirms truths that should be self-evident about the concept of humanity being more a state of mind than body, but that the needs of the body cannot be ignored.

Sessions, The (United States, 2012)

Director: Ben Lewin
Cast: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy, Moon Bloodgood, Annika Marks, Adam Arkin
Screenplay: Ben Lewin
Cinematography: Geoffrey Simpson
Music: Marco Beltrami
U.S. Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Run Time: 1:31
U.S. Release Date: 2012-10-23
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Content, Nudity, Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1