THE SESSIONS is an odd bird – a gentle disability drama in the vein of SCENT OF A WOMAN or the recent UNTOUCHABLE, it also features some of the frankest discussion of the mechanics of sex that I can remember seeing in a mainstream film.
The nature of plot demands this, obviously: it’s the story of severely disabled man who wants to lose his virginity before he hits his ‘use-by’ date, as he poignantly calls it. But whereas we are somewhat conditioned to expect a certain amount of blurring of the edges when it comes to discussion and the depiction of sexual activity itself in movies, THE SESSIONS doesn't pull its punches. As a result, it’s somewhat ironic that one of the frankest films about sex in years should be one that focuses on sex amongst the disabled, a subject that has remained one of a few remaining taboos in mainstream media until very recently.
The gradual erosion of that taboo was assisted greatly by the original 1988 magazine article that writer-director Ben Lewin uses as the basis for THE SESSIONS. O’Brien (played here by John Hawkes) is a California-based poet and journalist who, due being stricken with polio as a child, has spent his most of his life consigned to a gurney. He spends 20 hours of each day spent trapped inside an enormous iron lung, his ability to move is limited almost exclusively to his head. Despite this, he is still capable of feeling sensation in his body, and longs both for a romantic experience and to explore his own unfulfilled sexuality.
After some painfully misguided attempts at propositioning the women in his life, Mark is commissioned to write an article about the sex lives of the disabled, and subsequently put in touch with a sex therapist. She in turn introduces him to Cheryl (Helen Hunt), a ‘sex surrogate’, who will over the course of six sessions work with Mark on his ‘body awareness’ before eventually having full sex with him.
THE SESSIONS reframes sex in a very interesting way, as it filters some of its more mundane aspects, aspects that we would take for granted, through O’Brien’s unique perspective. While the language comes straight out of a medical textbook, Lewin’s direction (and, it must be said, O’Brien’s story as a whole) brings an element of magic and romance back to sex: there’s a lovely, moving sequence where one of Mark’s first sexual experiences is accompanied by a montage of tactile sensations, like stroking a kitten and running through a cornfield.
Lewin, a former polio sufferer himself, also effectively manages an extremely tricky balance of tones by embracing the comedy of the inevitable awkwardness of Mark and Cheryl’s situation – Mark inadvertently inferring she is a prostitute, his inevitable premature ejaculation – but never opts to use them as cheap punchlines. You’re always laughing with these characters, and they’re always tinged with just the right amount of pathos.
The cast is uniformly excellent – the always-reliable Hawkes is totally unrecognizable here as the warm yet sharply sardonic O’Brien. Some have argued he was unfairly snubbed in the recent Oscar nominations, and there’s certainly a case to be made for his achievement in making a rounded, engaging character purely from the use of his face, his voice, and the movement of his head. I’d still argue his standout roles in MARTHAN MARCY MAY MARLENE and WINTER’S BONE were more impressive performances overall, but it's an eye-catching turn all the same.
William H Macy is also hilariously understated as an idiosyncractic priest who is Mark’s main confidant, who conforms to absolutely none of typical rythyms of either the priest or the best friend that you would normally find in films such as this.
The standout is Hunt, however, who was recognised by the Academy for her role as Cheryl. She presents us with a character I don’t think I’ve seen on screen before: a good mother, intelligent, romantic, completely at ease with sex and her own sexuality, operating in an ethically complex job and taking it extremely seriously. She’s a revelation here – believable and heartbreaking, and it really does suggest she’s been hugely underestimated in her post-Mad About You career. She also proves fearless in her nude scenes, which is just as well as she’s naked for a large portion of the film.
Which brings me on to one of my main qualms with THE SESSIONS – it features Hunt naked frequently, but in akey moment when Hawkes is required to be shown naked, the camera suddenly develops a bashfulness. It’s a jarring reminder that female nudity = good and male nudity = bad in movies, and actually serves to undo a lot of the good work THE SESSIONS has done up to that point in treating sex maturely.
Also, the film does such a good job of avoiding sentimentality for most of its runtime that the brief descent into mawkishness in its final moments feels even more disappointing, with the final shot in particular feeling like a blatant and misguided attempt to tug on the heartstrings. It also doesn't feel like a satisfactory way of tying together a number of the themes that have been introduced - as a result the characters feel a little short-changed, and the film ends up feeling somewhat slighter than it could have done, had it been subject to a bit more refining.
Despite this THE SESSIONS is a well-made, excellently acted film about some genuinely remarkable people. While the content might sound extreme or depressing it never feels that way, and it would make an excellent date moive, if date movies are still a thing that people do. It’s well worth spending 90 minutes with if you get the chance, and hopefully it won’t get overlooked in the next few weeks of LES MIS and DJANGO-mania.