Originally titled The Surrogate, The Sessions feels like something of an anomaly in the 21st century; a smart, humorous mainstream American film about sex that’s made for grown ups, not teenagers and adults suffering a chronic case of arrested development. Despite this rather refreshing starting point the film does disappointment somewhat in the degree to which the film makers are willing to make concessions to excepted norms regarding nudity on-screen in American film and presumably the effect this could have on its chances of a lower certificate and Academy nominations.
For the most part The Sessions is a frank story about sexual relationships though and it is only in its aforementioned shyness about male nudity, most notably the covering up of actor John Hawkes in a very crucial scene explicitly about body awareness, that The Sessions really holds back from giving the audience a fascinating story firmly grounded in this subject.
Hawkes plays Mark O’Brien, a polio survivor who is unable to move the majority of his body and has to spend the bulk of his time in an iron lung. Despite his physical incapacity, he has carers to attend to his needs throughout the day, he is physically able to have sex but has never had the opportunity. Following an ill-advised declaration of love and marriage proposal to one of his carers Mark’s desire to lose his virginity becomes a pressing concern and following his being assigned a story to write about sex and physical handicaps – Mark is a respected writer and poet – he speaks to a sex therapist about finding a way to achieve this. She recommends a ‘Sex Surrogate’ (Helen Hunt), who will be sensitive to Mark’s particular situation and over the course of six sessions, the number is very deliberately limited, will help him explore his sexuality and help him achieve his goal of sexual intercourse.
Supporting Mark, and Hawkes and Hunt in the cast, is his priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy) and his carer Vera (Moon Bloodgood), amongst a selection of other supporting characters, all with solid performances from the varied cast. Religiously speaking Father Brendan takes a rather relaxed approach to Mark’s situation and in spite of the rather unique scenario the Father’s behaviour, despite a wonderfully entertaining performance filled with subtle ticks and amusing expressions, is one of the film’s rare examples of implausibility.
The direction, from Ben Lewin, feels almost perfunctory in The Sessions and the film at time has the look of a TV movie – Lewin has previously worked on the small screen – but as this is very much a character piece and very much about understated emotion this is never really to great an issue. One may find the bright, flat cinematography and twee score by Marco Beltrami a little grating at times though.
The film is a tour de force by the two leads though and combined with a nuanced, emotionally charged script it is easy to become consumed by Mark’s journey. A warm and compelling tale told in a simple manner, The Sessions is a rewarding if somewhat slight film with wide appeal.