Early on in Mark O’Brien’s quest to find sexual pleasure, he quips something to the effect of, “Sex is the most serious thing in life, it’s even all over the bible.” From this line, The Sessions gains much of its perspective on people’s never-ending battle with animal urges. O’Brien’s projection of the importance of sex in his own life dictates the point-of-view of the film as a whole. Knowing that The Sessions is based on the short story O’Brien wrote about his experiences, helps alleviate some of the cornier occurrences. The movie plays out as O’Brien wanted it to be told. Nonetheless, even if hindered by some overly sentimental moments, The Sessions succeeds as a frank and friendly story about the role of sex in our quest to find companionship.
John Hawks brilliantly plays Mark O’Brien, a poet who was stricken with polio at the age of six. Now 38-years-old and confined to a stretcher with a breathing assist, Mark desperately wants to feel the pleasure of sleeping with a woman. After he gets the blessing from a lovingly conflicted priest (Macy), he hires a sex surrogate named Cheryl (Hunt) to help him learn to achieve true sexual pleasure. Through a series of six sessions, O’Brien goes from reluctant to emotionally invested, as Cheryl must combat her unexpected feelings as well.
Because The Sessions’ main character is tethered to a gurney, breathing through an iron lung, the film lives and dies by its ability to create stakes out of continuous conversation. In the first half, the question-and-answer form begins to get tedious. That is, until Hunt’s complex Cheryl arrives. The first scene between Hawkes and Hunt has to be counted as one of the most unconventional meet-cutes ever created. Hunt, behind a forcefully guarded wall, must play the role of provocateur while also being comforting and mothering. Quick to establish that she’s absolutely not a prostitute, Hunt maintains that that the psychological and emotional aspect of sexuality is more important than physical impulse. Without being didactic, the film makes an argument for the importance of being comfortable with sex, which often means facing the psychological demons of your past and present.
While The Sessions clearly states that sex is an essential component of life that shouldn’t be treated so conservatively, it also respectfully shows the multitudes of human behaviors and beliefs. Father Brendan understands the plight of O’Brien’s condition so well that he’s even inclined to put his beliefs on hold in order to offer his go ahead for pre-marital sex: “God would understand.” However, beyond the politeness, The Sessions also remains frank and topical about sex by displaying all the uncomfortable awkwardness that lead to only momentary satisfaction. After his first act of intercourse, Mark asks one of his caretakers if “that’s it,” to which his caretaker replies, “It’s overrated but necessary.” Similarly, when Mark thinks he’s about to die, he stares at the ceiling, complacent to how matter-of-fact it all really is. He whispers, “So this is how it ends.” We are all just animals, after all.
There was a time in the history of cinema, where Hawkes’ performance might have been lauded as a revelation. Spending the entire film without any voluntary movement beyond his eyes and mouth, Hawkes manages to emote the full spectrum of emotions. Hawkes’ Mark tells us over and over that he just wants to feel the pleasure of being inside a woman, yet as the film evolves, we see that what he actually wants is the emotional touch of another human’s affections. He wants love. Most interesting is how Hawkes can perform that he understands the sorrow of the women who enter his life. He realizes that they, just like him, are crippled inside more than outside.
Like The Intouchables, while its sentimentality can be frustrating, The Sessions demonstrates that, in many respects, heartfelt moments are the great gift of drama. The Sessions generates its originality from the execution of an incredibly difficult story to tell. Smartly choosing to fasten focus on the core needs of its small cast, this simple tale promotes the importance of all forms of love, from a primal act of intercourse to a reasoned feeling of romance. [B+]