Review: The Sessions

Directed by: Ben Lewin
Written by:Ben Lewin
Starring: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy, Adam Arkin, Rhea Perlman, Moon Bloodgood
Released: November 8, 2012
Grade: B+

The Sessions
The Sessions takes us inside a world that only a small few would be familiar with.  It’s based on the true story of Mark O’Brien (Hawkes) – a 38-year-old man who has been paralysed from the neck down, due to the effects of polio, since he was a young child.  He relies heavily on an iron lung to survive and requires constant care.

The premise centres on Mark’s hopes to lose his virginity.  He’s never had a girlfriend and he’s never had an intimate contact with a woman.  That’s about to change.  Thanks to the advice from a good friend, Mark has been given the details of woman who can help.  Her name is Cheryl (Hunt) and she’s a professional sex surrogate.

It’s a job that I was previously aware of.  Cheryl isn’t a prostitute – a point she makes clear at the very start of their sessions together.  Her role is to teach Mark the “basics” and to help him explore his sexual potential.  He will then the confidence and experience to increase his sexual activity in the future.

Writer-director Ben Lewin has made the decision to position the film somewhere between the comedic and dramatic genres.... and it works.  If you were to hear Mark’s story from a complete stranger, you might think of it as a terrible tragedy.  This is a guy who has almost no quality of life.  He spends every moment confined to a bed and struggling to breathe.  Not once has he experienced the sensation of an orgasm.

Mark has found a way to deal with the situation as best he can – by having a sense of humour about it.  He’s not afraid to make a joke and he seems to take great pleasure in stirring a local priest (Macy) with whom he has become friends.  Mark enjoys putting him to the test by asking what God would think of his use of a sex surrogate.

There’s another side to this story however.  We also see things from Cheryl’s perspective and it gives us an insight into this tricky profession.  She needs to establish trust with her clients and help them deal with problems that they’ve long suppressed.  At the same time, she has to be careful not to get too close from an emotional perspective.  It’s not easy.

The Sessions premiered at the Sundance Film Festival back in January and the performances have been talked up as “awards worthy” ever since.  John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone) is excellent in the leading role and deftly illustrates his character’s deep insecurities.  Hunt is also very good with her soothing voice and comforting disposition.  The scenes they share in bed together are both awkward and humorous.

The film skirts around a few issues and its look into Cheryl’s home life is a good example.  We see small glimpses of her interacting with her husband and son but they don’t offer as much as you’d expect.  As the priest, William H. Macy’s character could have also used a little more depth.  He pops in and out of the story for the sole purpose of proving a few laughs.

It can’t match the emotive power of films such as The Sea Inside and The Diving Bell & The Butterfly but The Sessions is still a nicely told story that makes you appreciate the things we take for granted.