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Review: The Sessions (2012)

The Sessions (2012)

Directed by: Ben Lewin

Premise: A paralyzed polio survivor (John Hawkes) hires a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt) in order to have his first sexual experience.

What Works: The Sessions is an extraordinary film that is distinguished in the way it deals with the subtleties of human sexuality. Sex is a common subject in movies and in mass media as a whole but all too often it is presented either with puritanical derision or pornographic lasciviousness. In films made under either extreme, sexuality is damned outright or reduced to a mechanical act that has the appeal of industrial footage of a piston engine. This polarized representation oversimplifies sexuality and the nature of desire but the filmmakers of The Sessions break out of this mold. The film is about a grown man who wants to lose his virginity and the story premise recalls raunchy comedies like The 40 Year Old Virgin. But although The Sessions has a fair amount of humor to it, the film is not a comedy and in many ways it is closer in tone to films like the 2006 version of Lady Chatterley. This is a movie that is body-affirming and relationship centered.  The story focuses on the relationship between a paralyzed man played by John Hawkes and a sex surrogate played by Helen Hunt. Both Hawkes and Hunt give bold but sensitive performances, baring their characters for the audience both physically and emotionally. Hawkes is especially good, as he is immobile from the neck down and must do almost all his acting with his face and voice. Despite the limitations, Hawkes is entirely engaging and he carries the picture. This is a film about sexuality from the male perspective and that may be the picture’s boldest and most interesting element. The Sessions is not chauvinistic—this is not about conquest—but it does not apologize for masculinity either. The Sessions addresses the way in which sexual virility is part of the masculine identity and how it validates the main character’s sense of self. What is really at stake in the film is not merely the character’s carnal satisfaction but deeper issues like his dignity and the yearning for an intimate connection with another person. If anything, this film is a mature rebuke of the way so many Hollywood films soporifically trivialize sexuality. As highfalutin as that sounds, The Sessions is also very entertaining. The film has a lot of humor, especially as it deals with the main character’s fear of confronting his desires, and The Sessions has a good natured way about it; like its main character, this is a genuinely pleasant movie.

What Doesn’t: One odd element of The Sessions is the relationship between John Hawkes character and a priest played by William H. Macy. Hawkes character goes to the priest for counseling and their meetings provide the story with moments of reflection. Both actors are good in their roles and the scenes generally play well. However, Macy’s priest is written in an odd way. The Sessions has a humanist attitude toward sexuality and so the filmmakers force a liberal mindset on a man in a conservative profession. Because of that the scenes sometimes play slightly off key although Macy mostly compensates with subtle cues in his performance that hint at the priest’s inner conflict. The Sessions also has an abrupt ending. The bulk of the film is about the relationship between the characters played by John Hawkes and Helen Hunt but the conclusion of the movie departs from that focus. It makes sense for the story to pivot when and where it does, but the ending does come rather suddenly.

Bottom Line: The Sessions is a terrific film with great performances. Despite its unusual premise, the movie deserves a wide audience as its appeal will transcend the independent film crowd. The Sessions is also one of the most sensitive and sophisticated explorations of sexuality seen in a mainstream American film in quite some time.

Episode: #418 (December 9, 2012)