- Movie Rating -

The Sessions (2012)

| December 27, 2012 | 0 Comments

The Sessions is a movie that deals with a subject that is so common in movies and yet uncomfortable to most American minds: sex.  Sex is commonplace in movies and yet is rarely ever taken with any degree of seriousness.  Whereas European movies deal with the subject frankly and honestly, American films turn sex into something filthy or as a comic punchline.  The Sessions deals with the subject with maturity, openness and even a measure of grace.  That this material is handled so well in a comedy is nothing short of a miracle.

The movie tells the true story of Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), a 38 year-old poet whose muscles were rendered immobile by polio when he was a kid.  in 1990 he wrote and article called “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate” and this movie tells the story the he wrote.  Mark has spent his life either in an iron lung or with a portable oxygen machine.  The first time we hear him speak, we understand right away that he asks for no sympathy.  He is not a wounded saint who wants to ennoble the world; he’s just a guy in a predicament.

Something in Mark’s mind makes him believe that his condition doesn’t leave him long to live.  His last wish before he dies seems complicated, but doesn’t seem unreasonable.  He wants to lose his virginity and he enlists his straight-thinking caregiver Vera (Moon Bloodgood) for help.  It is suggested that he get help from a sex therapist, who agrees to act as a sex surrogate.  The gift from the sky is an attractive blond named Cheryl (Helen Hunt) who agrees to meet with him, yet lays out a series of ground rules.   She will meet with him for six sessions and no more.  She explains plainly that she is a sex therapist, not a prostitute.  She will help him understand his body and to explore sex even though he cannot move.  Mark has feeling in his body, you see, but can’t move his muscles.

This is a complicated set-up given both Mark’s immobility and the fact the he is a devout Catholic.  He goes to confession with his priest Father Brendan (William H. Macy) who is conflicted himself.  Brendan cannot give his blessing to what is essentially fornication because any sex outside of the institution of marriage is a mortal sin.  This could have played for bad laughs, but Mark is serious about his faith and is asking the priest for spiritual guidance.  After a time, the good Father smiles and blesses Marks request with a wonderfully tender blessing: “I know in my heart that God will give you a free pass on this one. Go for it.”

Mark meets with Cheryl for several sessions and indeed they do have sex.  Director Ben Lewis, who also wrote the screenplay, handles the sex scenes with frankness and tenderness.  We do, indeed, see Helen Hunt naked several times but the movie never veers into the trashy or disgusting territory.  This is a movie about a man discovering sex, not about the act itself. If the sex scenes make us uncomfortable then that only proves that it is veering into realistic territory, the best sex scenes are about the people and not the act.

The two performances by John Hawkes and Helen Hunt walk a very fine tightrope, giving us two people who take sex seriously and treat it with maturity.  John Hawkes, who plays Mark, is a good actor who has been around for a few years but hasn’t found general recognition.  He was nominated for an Oscar three years ago for Winter’s Bone and last year gave a chilling performance as a cult leader in Martha Marcy May Marlene and can be seen right now in a small role as a wheeler-dealer in Lincoln.  He handles this difficult role with a lot of skill and tact.  Not only is he required to play a man who cannot move, but he infuses him with a lot of personality, spirituality and humor.  A lesser actor would have played the role for pity, but Hawkes finds a way to play this unusual role and make us feel that he is just a regular guy.  This is a great performance that should get him an Oscar nomination.  He is matched by Helen Hunt, who plays Cheryl as a complete professional.  She is intelligent and takes her job very seriously.  Yes, there is a hint of romance between the two but the movie doesn’t go where we expect.

The Sessions is the kind of movie that you don’t think that you want to see until you’ve seen it.  Then you’re glad you took the time.  The description turns some people off, but if you see it, you won’t be disappointed.  Here is a movie that treats sex with tact and seriousness but doesn’t shy away from a tender kind of comedy that isn’t laughing at the characters but lets the humor flow from them as people.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.