THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
Lots of movies have sex in them, but very few actually deal with sexuality as a serious topic. That's what makes The Sessions so refreshing. Here is an intelligent, funny, insightful film that offers a frank examination of sex. It's not prurient or titillating, just truthful. The last picture to overtly portray sex was last year's Shame, which, while excellent, was nonetheless a feel-bad story. The Sessions is exactly the opposite, as it takes a joyous approach to an inspiring true story.
John Hawkes plays Mark O'Brien, a poet who lives in an iron lung due to contracting polio as a child. For several hours a day, he can leave the confines of that iron lung, but while not technically paralyzed, he cannot move anything below the neck. His caretaker, Vera (Moon Bloodgood), hauls him around on a gurney. Mark knows his lifespan will likely be short, and there is something he desperately wants to do: have sex. While he can't move much of his body, he still has plenty of sensation throughout it. He is referred to a professional sex surrogate named Cheryl (Helen Hunt), and hires her for six sessions of therapy. She begins with body awareness exercises, with the eventual goal as per Mark's request of full penetration. Part of Cheryl's process involves confidence building (something Mark desperately needs) and nurturing a compassionate bond. She's not a prostitute, but rather someone who therapeutically helps the handicapped find ways to experience the same pleasures that an able-bodied person would almost take for granted. Over the course of their meetings, Mark and Cheryl become close, each of them learning surprising things about themselves along the way.
Much of the humor in The Sessions comes from Mark's self-effacing attitude. He jokes about his predicament because it's easier than feeling sorry for himself. The character sees the irony of an immobile guy trying to get laid, relying on the woman to quite literally do all the work. His nerves get the better of him, in several different ways. Mark's disability is never the butt of the joke, though; his desires are portrayed as sincere, and the laughs come from his dogged attempts to overcome the awkwardness of losing his virginity against some formidable odds, to a vibrant woman he knows shouldn't really be interested in him. Consequently, you really start to root for Mark to accomplish his goal. I found myself so absorbed in his quest that I was nervous for him, hoping each attempt would bring success.
The idea of hiring a professional sex surrogate is, of course, provocative. The film doesn't shy away from that fact. Mark, a devout Catholic, seeks forgiveness from his priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy). Although the rules of his religion forbid him from condoning Mark's actions, Father Brendan empathizes with his friend's plight, offering guidance and support. At some level, he knows that this isn't an issue of morality, but rather Mark's attempt to achieve a sense of normalcy, one that will help him endure his physical struggles. It's rare to find a movie that deals with sex in a mature way; it's even more rare to find one that examines the intersection of sex and religion. The Sessions is highly respectful of both subjects, recognizing that, for people of faith, separation of the two is often impossible.
John Hawkes was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in Winter's Bone. His work here surpasses even his acclaimed turn in that film. All he has to work with are his voice, his face, and his eyes. His body rests flat on a gurney for the entire movie. Despite this, Hawkes creates a fully three-dimensional character who earns your empathy from the very first frame. You feel every emotion that passes through Mark's being: his desire for intimacy, his nervousness, and ultimately his love. Helen Hunt is also outstanding. Cheryl is a tough character to pull off, due to that whole getting-paid-for-sex thing. In Hunt's hands, you never think of her as a prostitute. Cheryl operates out of a desire to help people, to heal them mentally by aiding them physically. The two leads strike up a touching chemistry that is the beating heart of The Sessions.
I won't tell you where the story eventually goes, except to say that writer/director Ben Lewin handles it with great dignity. The film proves genuinely moving on a couple of different levels. The Sessions doesn't overplay the humor, doesn't get sappy with emotion, and never exploits the subject matter. It is a film that recognizes the value of sex in human connection. Mark O'Brien never thought he'd get a chance to experience the full spectrum of such connection. He becomes a better man for taking the one gamble that makes it a possibility.
( out of four)
The Sessions is rated R for strong sexuality including graphic nudity and frank dialogue. The running time is 1 hour and 35 minutes.
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