The Sessions is perhaps one of the most mature and sensitive films revolving around human sexuality. Written and directed by Ben Lewin (who has only a few previous credits to his name,) The Sessions sheds light on two very misunderstood and often overshadowed topics: sex work and sex whilst living with a disability. The Sessions is based on the autobiographical writings of California based journalist and poet Mark O’Brien, (played by John Hawkes) a man who is confined to an iron lung. When he turns 38, he is determined to finally lose his virginity. With the guidance and go-ahead from his personal priest, delightfully played by William H. Macy (who makes him a funny, approachable human, not just an infallible extension of the divine) O’Brien then employs a sex therapist, or sex surrogate, (played by Helen Hunt) to make this dream a reality. Then, in typical quasi-romantic comedy fashion, she begins developing feelings for O’Brien.
What is most intriguing about this film is its depiction of sex work. Helen Hunt’s character, Cheryl, is a happily married and licensed professional. Indeed, this is legally mandated by many states. Sexual surrogates exist to help those with disabilities, rape/abuse traumas, or general intimacy issues. For those who oppose sex work, this film sheds some light on some of its positive sides. (Of course, I recognize that this is a privileged character who freely chooses to enter into that profession. There are many who are forced into sex work unwillingly.) I also appreciated that Cheryl’s husband is never villainizes her, or is insecure in his masculinity because his wife has sex with others for money. He supports his wife in her profession and understands that she is helping others. While the film does depart into a subplot of romantic drama, the surrogate falling for the customer, it never delves into a jealous, insecure husband trope. The sex scenes themselves are handled with an intimate but candid grace. The film does not shy or hide its nudity, or the mechanics of sexual relations. The intimately of sexual therapy is openly portrayed. These scenes are fascinating but also disquieting in their unflinchingly voyeuristic fashion. You feel as if you should look away, for it is too personal.
John Hawkes is incredible as Mark O’Brien, his performance transcends typical award-bait fare. He makes O’Brien profoundly human and incredibly interesting to watch. He is a charming man who falls back on humor to lighten the weight of his burden, a burden that elicits our great sympathies. But, he is also hard to deal with, at times irritating and annoying. He portrays O’Brien as he likely was, for everyone has good and bad qualities. He is not merely a saint. He is smart, but pompous, friendly, but abrasive. John Hawkes is an incredibly underrated actor, it is nice to see him in a lead role rather than in the vast supporting roles he usually appears in. As for Helen Hunt, yes, she does bare all, literally, in her role as Cheryl. But she also crafts a humane character, revealing the complexities of a woman in her profession. This work is not just becoming an embodied fantasy for someone, it is a psychological and emotional negotiation and analysis. Hunt wonderfully portrays her character’s professional and romantic conflicts.
Led by two talented stars, The Sessions is funny, tender, and touching. It is a welcome transgression from typical Hollywood fare in its treatment of sexuality. The sexual scenes are not framed as this incredibly romantic and monumental act, or on the opposite spectrum, weird and disgusting, but rather as complex. To The Sessions, sex just is. It encompasses both joy and sadness, both love and hate. It is important, yet it is not. Most significantly, The Sessions dispels the misconception that those with disabilities are asexual creatures. They are humans with wants and needs, as everyone, regardless of any kind of physical or emotional impairment. Also, the film sheds light on the merits of sex work, without villainizing a female character that partakes in it. While illuminating these important social problems, The Sessions may dip into clichés, but it does not wade in the saccharine. Overall, it is quite beautiful and worth seeing.
by Caroline Madden
Caroline hails from the home state of her hero Bruce Springsteen. Some of her favorite films are Amadeus, King Kong, When Harry Met Sally, Raging Bull, The Godfather, Jaws, and An American Werewolf in London. Her absolute favorite will always be The Lord of the Rings trilogy. 70s/80s era Al Pacino and Robert De Niro are her faves. She blogs even more about her film obsession at cinematicvisions.wordpress.com.