Dir. Ben Lewin
(2012, R, 94 minutes)

The Sessions is an affecting biopic that considers adult sexuality matter-of-factly. It is discussed frankly, maturely, without prurience or exploitation, to the point that I hardly noticed that any of its content was explicit. Smart teenagers would be a reasonable audience for the R-rated film. Dumb teenagers probably wouldn’t be interested anyway.

I’ve admired actor John Hawkes‘s work going back to his supporting role on HBO’s Deadwood and his starring role in Miranda July‘s Me and You and Everyone We Know, but he became more publicly known in 2010 when he earned an Oscar nomination for his superb work in Winter’s Bone. He gives another strong performance here as Mark O’Brien, the real-life poet left immobilized by childhood polio who sought a sex surrogate to relieve him of his virginity. O’Brien could only control his head and neck, leaving Hawkes with limited acting tools at his disposal, but this is nevertheless a full, emotionally rich performance.

Helen Hunt has another challenging task. As the surrogate, Cheryl, she sets the tone for her scenes with Hawkes, and finds the right balance of humor, professionalism, and empathy. The film suggests strong feelings develop between them. I don’t know whether this detail is factually accurate, but as portrayed in the film it feels abrupt – that this woman would so quickly lose her objective distance, makes it seem like this might not be the job for her.

There’s a subplot detailing the strain in Cheryl’s relationship with the man she lives with (Adam Arkin) caused by her sessions with Mark, but that too doesn’t seem to arise naturally from the story; his jealousy felt to me like the screenplay manufacturing a conflict. Not being intimately familiar with the true story, I’m hesitant to call any detail fundamentally true or untrue. I can only respond to the film as written.

I also wish we could learn about Mark’s psychology – including guilt, shame, and Catholic repression – less through Cheryl’s clinical notes than from Mark himself, which would be more dramatically satisfying.

But these shortcomings don’t sink the film. It’s written and directed by Ben Lewin, himself a survivor of polio, who develops an affectionate, seriocomic tone, shifting gracefully from comic scenes between Mark and a Catholic priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy), to the more dramatic exchanges with Cheryl. He shows similar ease during the sex scenes, his camera observing but not objectifying, attentive to the nervous tension and pleasure without being dry or becoming exploitive. This is not a perfect film, but it’s poignant and charming.

 

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