The Sessions

The Sessions tells a story that’s provocative and disquieting, though you wouldn’t know that from watching the film, which methodically punts each time it comes across anything interesting. Writer-director Ben Lewin – whose impeccably anodyne resume tells you what to expect – does everything in his power to neuter his thorny, difficult, fascinating material to fit his arthouse-crowdpleaser aesthetic. It’s a movie about sex and disability and the ethics of sex work that strains so hard for a jaunty tone and an inspirational message that it nearly busts a nut, despite having no balls.

John Hawkes, the reed-thin, versatile character actor who so scary in Winter’s Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene, has been praised to the rafters for his performance here as the polio-wracked Mark O’Brien. Pushing 40 and confined to bed and an iron lung for his entire adult life, O’Brien decides that despite his immobilizing disability he would like to experience sex at least once before he dies. That leads him to seek the services of a therapist and surrogate named Cheryl (Helen Hunt), who will work with him to “achieve intercourse” over a maximum of six sessions. (The movie doesn’t make clear whether this is a legal or personal requirement; she does say that the difference between herself and a prostitute is that she isn’t seeking his return business.)

Lest you get too bummed out by the notion of a crippled man forced to seek paid assistance with one of the fundamental aspects of human existence, The Sessions has several ways to keep a spring in your step. One is a truly noxious, pseudo-Malick-ian voiceover that draws on O’Brien’s poetry. Lewin may have thought better of that strategy, since the narration mercifully fades out after about 40 minutes.  Then, as O’Brien starts getting into the mechanics of his sexual experience, the film tries cutesy humor, with horrified reaction shots as he browses a sex manual, William H. Macy as a long-haired priest forced by his better nature to go along with O’Brien’s sinful plan, etc. When that doesn’t take either, the movie panics and shifts into hardcore triumph-of-the-human-spirit mode, contriving an improbable quasi-love-story between O’Brien and his surrogate, and making the former a sort of beaming saint.

There are pleasures in some of the details. O’Brien’s terror at the outset of his sessions is familiar and nicely rendered, with Hawkes’ performance in those moments offering one of the few instances of genuine humor. His progress in his time with Cheryl – and his eventual realization that sex involves two people (a notion that his disability makes it still harder to realize fully) – is affecting. And it’s fun to watch Hawkes and Hunt, though the latter’s frequent on-screen nudity and the former’s total lack thereof  is a disappointing illustration of the sexism built into the DNA of a mainstream American film like this.

The Sessions’ treatment of the a relationship between O’Brien and Cheryl is appallingly chickenshit.  The notion that they are simply engaging in a transaction is intolerable to the film, so it feints at a love affair – but doesn’t have the guts to actually dramatize a love story between a crippled man and a healthy woman. (Cheryl is married to a do-nothing “stay-at-home philosopher” – a weird detail with which the film does absolutely nothing, leading me to believe it simply imported the fact from the true-life story without a moment’s further thought.) It’s an infuriating fence-straddle that epitomizes the movie. This is serious stuff, and the movie treats it like Chicken Soup for the Unadventurous Arthouse Soul.

-- Eugene Novikov

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