Director: Ben Lewin
Starring: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy
UK Release date: 18 January 2013
Certificate: 15 (95 mins)
The Sessions is an emotive but superficial film about a disabled poet’s (played by John Hawkes) encounters with a sex-surrogate in ‘80s California. Based on an autobiographical essay by Mark O’Brien, who contracted polio at the age of six and spent the majority of his life confined to an iron lung, the film focusses on the relationship he has with his own body and the way in which it mediates his relationships (or lack of them) with others. Frustrated and lonely in his mid-thirties, he approaches a professional sex-surrogate to help him lose his virginity.
In the hands of its writer-director, Ben Lewin, himself affected by polio at the same age as O’Brien, the story mixes a very un-Hollywood attitude to sex with a romantic narrative imposed onto the relationship between O’Brien and Cheryl, the woman with whom he is finally able to have sex. They discuss the physical and romantic mechanics of sex with a frankness that normally puts off mainstream distributors, making Fox Searchlight’s decision to buy the rights following its screening at the 2012 Sundance Festival all the more impressive. Helen Hunt’s Cheryl is confident and good-humoured, happy to challenge Mark’s fears and inhibitions. As narrator and protagonist, Mark’s voice is an ever-present: sarcastic and witty, self-deprecating and honest.
The chemistry between the two would have been interesting enough, but in order to instill something of a narrative arc, Lewin has the two characters gradually falling into something they both fear could be love. This is hardly supported by O’Brien’s original essay, which makes it clear that despite the euphoria of being able to have intercourse with Cheryl and an enjoyment of the physical intimacy of the time they spent together, he was quite aware of the true nature of the engagement. Likewise for Cheryl, who is portrayed as both professional and compassionate; it is then hard for us to believe that she would begin to fall in love with a client, no matter how unique his life story. Her relationship with her husband falls refreshingly into neither the idylls nor the mire of most Hollywood couples: they argue, eat together, discuss their work and fall asleep; her husband hides one of Mark’s poems that he has sent to Cheryl. It does not seem like an unfulfilling relationship from which Cheryl would run; and both her and Mark are too self-aware to fool themselves into thinking what they share is love. The extra narrative as such is unsatisfying – not believable, and ultimately fizzling out – and seems unnecessary, when the detail of their relationship and Mark’s reflections on what it means to him are interesting enough.
Any lack of tension is counterpointed by an excellent and funny script (featuring O’Brien’s own poetry, as can be read here, from the publishing house he founded). Much of the humour comes from the juxtaposition of intimacy and awkwardness; O’Brien’s ironic patter sets the encounters apart from the way that humour and sex normally live together on film (e.g. Superbad, American Pie, or even the more mature slapstick of Hope Springs). There is also what seems at first to be an interesting portrayal of a Catholic priest – William H. Macy’s Fr. Brendan, to whom Mark turns for advice. Unfortunately Fr. Brendan appears to have descended straight from central casting: he smokes, drinks beer, has long hair, and in case you hadn’t already picked up the fact that he is going to be A Cool Priest, he even turns up at Mark’s house in civvies. The film ducks any real theological discussion completely: when asked whether God will disapprove of Mark’s plan to have sex with Cheryl, Fr. Brendan looks up at a figure of Jesus for a few seconds and then tells Mark, ‘I think He’s going to give you a free pass on this one’. Religion in The Sessions equals inhibition and a source of physical self-disgust: the only indication of Mark’s lifelong Catholic faith is in the mention of it imposing on him a fear of sex, which his physical condition exacerbated. Fr. Brendan’s soothing voice soon becomes the pastoral equivalent of elevator music: designed to make you comfortable, rather than comforted.
This is where The Sessions disappoints. The final page of O’Brien’s essay, which can be read here, shows him asking some far more interesting questions after he has had sex. What do I really seek? Where do I go from here? The film fast-tracks the period of time in between the final session with Cheryl and his meeting with Susan, who was to become his partner for the rest of his life – a period of time in which, in real life, O’Brien lived out these questions. Sex was only one battleground on which the fear of and desire for intimacy played itself out. It would have been fascinating to hear what it was like for O’Brien to pass beyond that artificially hyped boundary of virgin/non-virgin, especially as he had made this such a quest. For this, the biographical documentary Breathing Lessons (made in 1995, four years before he died) would be a much more informative, and a far riskier film in every respect, to put out on wide release.
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