The Sessions is a film that epitomises Hollywood; let's take the real life story of a polio-stricken man, living with an iron-lung who is desperate to lose his virginity, and subsequently employs the services of a sex surrogate. Only in Hollywood could one attempt to turn this unfortunate situation into a comedic, warm and fuzzy, feel good drama.
The man in question is journalist and poet Mark O'Brien, played by John Hawkes (Lincoln). The film focuses on the disabled man, who needs the assistance of an iron lung for the majority of the day and is transported around on a gurney by various helpers. Despite his physical disabilities, Mark manages to fulfil a career in journalism by writing using a long stick held in his mouth. The journalist comes to the realisation that he may soon meet his maker, and not ever having experienced a sexual encounter with a woman, he decides it's time to tick that particular activity from his bucket list.
Despite such tragic circumstances, director Ben Lewin (The Favour, The Watch and the Very Big Fish) attempts to establish a very upbeat tone from the outset of the film. Whilst it's not hard to find sympathy for a man with Mark's disability, it's quickly established that Mark has come to terms with his condition and through his wit, charm and determination. The feeling of sympathy is swiftly replaced by admiration towards Mark. John Hawkes is absolutely fantastic in his portrayal and delivers a marvellous performance.
Religion has a central theme in The Sessions and with Mark being a Catholic; he seeks counselling from his local priest Father Brendan, played by William H Macy (Fargo). Now if we are led to believe that this is a true and honest account of Mark O' Brien's life, then it appears Father Brendan needs a confessional session of his own. Macy's portrayal of the beer swigging, generally distracted priest doesn't bode well for Father Brendan. After seeking advice on whether to proceed with his plan of using a sex surrogate to fulfil his carnal desires, the man of the cloth assures Mark that God will give him a free pass, due to his extenuating circumstances. In so doing, Father Brendan gives his blessing for Mark to go forth and break several of the Good Book's commandments including fornication, coveting another man's wife, adultery (the sex surrogate happens to be married).
So now enter the sex surrogate Cheryl, played by Helen Hunt (As Good as It Gets) who is quick to define the differences between a sex surrogate and a prostitute. She highlights that a prostitute wants repeat business, and she wants the opposite. They will have a set number of sessions, and during that period of time she will help him explore his (and her) body, which will ultimately lead to his sexual liberation. As always Helen Hunt delivers a great performance, and her interactions with Mark are very clinical and the scenes in helping Mark to shake off his virgin status are very matter of fact.
As audiences, we are constantly bombarded with sexualized images and scenes of a sexual nature in all manner of films. However the sex life's of people living with disabilities is a subject matter that is rarely broached and there shouldn't be a problem with exploring this issue. However, the whole concept that being a virgin is seen in The Sessions as some form of additional ailment, is one of the reasons I found it hard to warm to this film.
John Hawkes performance is the single most impressive aspect of this film, and this is where my appreciation for The Sessions ceases and my antipathy begins. Mark's physical disability is heart-breaking and he is certainly a man to be admired for striving through adversity to remain positive and live his life to the full. However, I've already watched a film about middle aged virgin on a quest to have his first sexual encounter and it starred Steve Carrell (The 40 Year Old Virgin). I enjoyed The 40 Year Old Virgin because it achieved everything is set out to be; a silly, slapstick, laugh out loud comedy.
The Sessions attempts to be a comedy of sorts instead of a drama and ultimately is just a very bland film, which at times leaves you feeling as emotionally detached as the awkward sexual scenes between Mark and Cheryl. But for the outstanding performances from John Hawkes and Helen Hunt, The Sessions would certainly have been destined for a straight to DVD release. Whilst this film has gathered much praise from sections of Hollywood and even scooped major awards at the Sundance Film Festival, the real winners are the Hawkes and Hunt, who through their considerable talent, manage to make the 98 minute running time of this dull and unremarkable film tolerable.