MOVIE REVIEW: The Sessions



By my calculations, 99% of all movies pertaining to a guy trying to lose his virginity involve horny high school or college shenanigans and endless misconceptions and cliches.  You know the movies I mean, like American Pie, Can't Hardly Wait, Sixteen Candles, Superbad, and other base-counting teeny-bopper sex farces.  The other 1% is covered by Steve Carell and his plight in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, which was excellent, but not all that different from the trial-and-error gags of those aforementioned high school movies.

The excellent new film The Sessions is a Sundance Film Festival favorite that is finally making its way to theaters across the country.  Lead by a pair of excellent lead performance from Academy Award nominee John Hawkes and Academy Award winner Helen Hunt, The Sessions carves out a percentage point all its own away from the 99% of teenage tomfoolery and the 1% of Judd Apatow comedy.  Based on a true story and not some cockamamie "sex with a cripple" pitch from a dirty-minded screenwriter,The Sessions is essentially the story of an older guy looking to end his life-long dry spell, but with more than a few hurdles and obstacles.

Since the age of six, Boston-born Berkeley journalist and poet Mark O'Brien spent the overwhelming majority of his life confined to an iron lung after being stricken with polio.  The real Mark O'Brien has already been the subject of one Academy Award-winning movie, the 1997 short subject documentary winner Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O'Brien.  In the few hours a day he can manage outside of the hulking life-sustaining apparatus, he's pushed around on a gurney and subject to nearly 24-hour in-home care.  I'd call that a life filled with hurdles to doing the sideways mambo.  

In The Sessions, we meet him (Hawkes) at the age of 38 back in 1988, having far out-lived many prognoses already.  Despite his many bouts of feeling extremely sorry for himself and the burden he creates, Mark keeps a keen wit and delightful sense of humor about his circumstances.  He shares that creativity in his writing and keeps a cheeky, yet devout relationship with his local Catholic priest and kindred spirit, Father Brendan (Academy Award nominee William H. Macy, who's great fun).  They challenge each other like true friends and beleaguered Catholics.

When Mark falls for one of his kinder caretakers (Annika Marks) and shares his feelings, she doesn't reciprocate the affection and breaks his heart.  Determined to become more of man, Mark embarks on journey to end his virginity.  Through positive encouragement from his current assistant (Moon Bloodgood) and Father Brendan, research and referral brings him into contact with a therapy program specializing in sex for disabled people.  It's there that he hires and meets a professional "sex surrogate," Ms. Cheryl Cohen Greene (Hunt).  A confident sexual being and therapist herself, Cheryl specializes in helping the disabled achieve their sexual peak using herself as the vessel and canvas, so to speak.

Mark and Cheryl begin a series of sessions that explore Mark's physical capabilities and mental blocks when it comes to intimacy, sex, eroticism, confidence, and control.  With each encounter, Mark's life improves thanks to Cheryl's positive reinforcement, as does his peace with God, thanks to Father Brendan.  Unlike the goals of every other virginity movie,

The Sessions shows a heartfelt and honest portrayal what the idea of sexual satisfaction and conquest mean to a person, especially one that can't just go out and perform the way everyone else can.  It's certainly an unorthodox path for a true story or a feel-good movie, but The Sessions succeeds in being extremely pleasing and thought-provoking.

The movie pulls no punches with both humor and drama when it comes to sexual content.  Sex is the core of the movie, but treated far more tastefully than other R-rated sex comedies.  Big-wig and politically correct critics commonly use the code word "brave" to describe a female actress's performance that involves uncomfortable or excessive nudity.  If that's the rule of thumb, then put "brave" in capital letters and bold font for Helen Hunt.  Beyond just putting herself out there physically, she has the difficult task of portraying the placid professional who's life requires intimacy without love.  Those are complicated lines to cross (or not cross) credibly.  I have no problem putting Helen Hunt in the Oscar race for The Sessions.  Unlike the female-heavy power of The Help from last year, Hunt's performance is something special that other actresses haven't come close to yet this year.  If I had a vote right now, it's her by a landslide.  Show me better and I'll listen, but it will take convincing.

I have to echo those high marks for the perpetually-horizontal John Hawkes.  While some people are going to say "all he had to do was lay there and talk all movie."  Alright, you go do it.  Lose the weight, curve your spine, and confine yourself to gurneys and iron lungs.  You go dial a phone with a stick in your mouth and strain for a breathing tube.  Then, act and emote realistically (while frequently nude) from just the neck up.  Good luck, Shakespeare.  In a year where Daniel Day-Lewis, a prior Oscar winner for famously playing a man with cerebral palsy in My Left Foot, is leading every ranking for Best Actor with his towering performance in Lincoln, John Hawkes might just pull a DDL on DDL with a similar role that is just as confining, intricate, and laborious.  He's absolutely tremendous.

I hope The Sessions can catch the next wave of word-of-mouth and buzz during this awards season.  It's a smaller and winning independent film (much like The Perks of Being a Wallflower) that's going to get shamefully overshadowed by big films like Lincoln and Les Miserables.  Back in January at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah, the film, then named The Surrogate, won the Audience Award for dramatic film and the Special Jury Prize for ensemble acting in drama.  The film is a true labor of love for writer-director Ben Lewin, who is a polio survivor himself.  He shoots an earthy and respectful love poem of a movie to match its lead character.  The performances of John Hawkes and Helen Hunt are more than worth the price of admission to seek this little film out, but stay for the engrossing character drama.

LESSON #1:  THE CONFIDENCE THAT COMES FROM SEXUAL CONQUEST-- Here's where The Sessions minutely comes across like the American Pie andThe 40-Year-Old Virgin movies before it.  The driving force and goal of Mark seeking sexual success and a loss of his virginity is rooted in confidence.  He's at a point in his life where he lacks confidence, sees his virility as a void, and feels that being a more complete man can elevate that.  Conquest may be a strong word, but ask any man.  There's a victory quotient to having sex.  To put it bluntly, it makes us feel more like a man.  However, that's before the emotional trappings come into play.  See Lesson #2.

LESSON #2: THE INTIMACY OF INTIMACY-- Sexual intercourse carries varying levels of importance and worth with every person.  I just discussed the matter of victory with men.  For many women,  liking sex victoriously gets them branded with a scarlet letter or label.  This is an obvious and, in many ways, unfortunate double standard of gender inequality.  Some joke that sex can be carnal, loveless, or "just like riding a bicycle," but it's truthfully not that easy.  No matter the value or label, sex is an intimate act that carries high emotional and physical response.  Those that joke that sex doesn't always have to mean anything are fooling themselves.  It's as scarring as it is character-building.  Emotional and physical response will always come into play.

LESSON #3: THE CHALLENGE OF TRANSFERENCE-- Now, we get to wrinkle of the "sex surrogate."  Be mindful and remember that Helen Hunt's character is not a prostitute.  She's a paid form of interactive, immersing, and hands-on therapy, but even her proven professional demeanor is challenged by transference of the medical and psychoanalytical variety.  For the first-timer Mark, his journey of intimacy with Cheryl creates a bond that she, as a medical professional, cannot reciprocate.  While lines are obviously crossed to do what she does with and for Mark, other boundaries still exist to be challenged.