Release Date: November 16, 2012 (limited)
Director: Ben Lewin
Writer: Ben Lewin (screenplay)
Stars: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt and William H. Macy
MPAA Rating: R
The simplest of goals can often turn into the most entertaining and challenging of Hollywood quests. Harold and Kumar overcame a slew of humorous challenges in order to simply score a meal at White Castle. The Dude found himself embroiled in a complex mystery while simply attempting to replace his soiled rug.
In The Sessions, Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) has a seemingly simple goal – to lose his virginity. Mark is a charming and likable guy with a great sense of humor, but this is a much more challenging goal than it seems. After a nearly fatal bout of polio as a child, Mark is confined to an iron lung. He can only survive outside of the contraption for hours at a time. As a result, he finds himself a 38-year-old virgin.
If simply wanting to feel physical love wasn’t enough of a challenge, there is an added problem for Mark – he’s incredibly religious. He’s been raised to believe that sex outside of marriage is a sin. Mark is a writer who works from home, composing stories with a stick in his mouth to work the typewriter, and the only daily interactions he has are typically with his in-home caregivers. He tried proposing to one of them, but while she cared for him deeply, it wasn’t a romantic love.
So Mark has sexual desires that are at odds with his physical condition and his religious beliefs. In order to achieve his goal, he must first clear it with his priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy). Then he must find a willing (and incredibly patient) partner, which he does in the sex surrogate Cheryl (Helen Hunt).
The other characters in the film are also struggling with contradictory motivations. Father Brendan should tell Mark that sex outside of marriage is a sin, but he can’t quite stick to the official doctrine in the face of these extenuating circumstances. And the very nature of Chery’s job, along with Mark’s specific set of challenges, leave her with quite a few mixed emotions.
For starters, there’s Cheryl’s job itself. As she explains to Mark, she isn’t a prostitute. Instead, she is a teacher who aims to show her clients how to have a satisfying sex life (with an incredibly hands-on approach). Cherly limits her clients to a total of six sessions. She also keeps copious notes about their particular hang ups and her recommendations on fixing their problems.
Cherly is married with a teenage son. She does her best to stay detached from her clients, but she finds that particularly challenging with Mark. He’s a charming guy with such a particular set of problems that it’s impossible for her not to let her guard down a bit. Also, with him being so isolated, he becomes quite attached to her, a completely understandable problem that she struggles to cope with.
Then there are the variety of physical problems Mark is dealing with. Finding a technique that even works is a huge challenge. Finding a way to make the whole enterprise enjoyable for him (or for her, which Mark greatly hopes will happen) is a daunting challenge. And making the whole thing happen without Mark getting overly attached seems impossible.
It’s a surprisingly sweet and touching story. And it features great performances by everyone involved. Playing an immobile man confined to an iron lung, John Hawkes is incredibly limited in what he can do physically with his performance, but he manages to inject a lot of personality and charisma into his performance. Also, because of the odd curvature of Mark’s spine, Hawkes is forced to twist his body uncomfortably the entire film. It couldn’t have been a pleasant experience for him.
Helent Hunt gives one of her best performances as Cheryl. William H. Macy has a lot of fun playing Father Brendan. The range of emotions that go across his face as Mark talks to him about his experiences with Cheryl as priceless. And Moon Bloodgold gives a charming performance as one of Mark’s caregivers.
I highly recommend giving this film a shot. It’s guaranteed to be one of the most unique movies you’ve seen in a while. It also has an interesting take on how we think about religion, the handicapped and love. All that from a movie about a guy trying to get laid. It’s quite refreshing.
Written by Joel Murphy. If you enjoy his reviews, he also writes a weekly pop culture column called Murphy’s Law, which you can find here. You can contact Joel at firstname.lastname@example.org.