The Sessions should be praised, among other reasons, for doing the impossible: making two generally uncomfortable subjects not only watchable, but also enjoyable. Here, sex and disability are portrayed as everyday, run-of-the-mill issues, which is how they should be treated. But it was a tad too much for the puritan and deluded world of Hollywood, who gave the film an R rating.
The film is based on the real story of Mark O’brien (John Hawkes), a poet and journalist who contracted polio as a child and decided that, at the age of 38, it was time to lose his virginity. The problem? Polio has left him stretched out on a gurney, having to rely on an iron lung to survive except for four hours a day. A fervent Catholic, and never without a sense of humour, Mark goes to his local church where his unorthodox priest tells him to “Go for it!” and offers sexual therapy as a solution.
Mark ends up seeking the help of a sex surrogate, Cheryl, played by Helen Hunt. A wife and a mother, she’s at ease with herself and truly committed to her job. Cheryl is charming but tough and has no problems setting boundaries: they can only have a maximum of six sessions together. But of course, rules are meant to be broken and things don’t quite go as expected. The beauty of the movie lies in how these two souls, who are worlds apart, deal with exploring the unknown.
…it’s imperfect and scary, funny and silly…
In an interview with popular talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres, Hunt said about baring it all in front of the camera: “In movies, sex is perfectly choreographed. First the bra strap comes off… And it’s not like that. So the idea that I could be in a movie that would actually promote the fact that it’s all an improv, it’s imperfect and scary, funny and silly… I weighed that against being naked and decided to do it.” To which I can only say, bravo. You will not be able to walk away from this movie without having learnt something.
The Sessions achieves a perfect balance, in that it is suggestive enough to nag one spectrum of the audience, and not suggestive enough for those who were expecting to see something they had never seen before. But none of what is handled in the movie should come as a surprise to anyone (unless you’ve lived under a rock for the past few years). The film’s simplicity and candour is refreshing, and I can honestly say that it (temporarily) restored my faith in humanity.
…A performance like his in The Sessions is rare…
On another note, and with award season right around the corner, I’d like to share my extreme disappointment after finding out John Hawkes isn’t nominated for an Oscar. A performance like his in The Sessions is rare and, in my opinion, the whole point of having award ceremonies.
From the details in the acting process such as his body language and his voice, to the way he captures the vulnerability of a disabled person all the while being hilarious, he makes the viewer feel his commitment to the character. Where he really exceeds is in never making the audience feel sorry for his character.
But how do you not feel sorry for a guy who needs an iron lung to breathe and was never able to see his full body until someone else held up a mirror in front of him? You don’t. Not here.