The Sessions (2012)
★★★★ / ★★★★
When Mark O’Brien was six years of age, he had contracted poliomyelitis which resulted to his body being paralyzed from the neck down. As a man in his latter thirties, Mark (John Hawkes) wishes to know how it is like to be physically intimate with a woman. Unmarried and a Catholic, he consults with a priest (William H. Macy) to see if such a route is acceptable given his condition. To Mark’s surprise, Father Brendan gives him a green light. Cheryl (Helen Hunt) is hired as a sex surrogate. She informs Mark that they have a maximum of six sessions to have a chance of going all the way.
In the hands of someone who does not understand human drama, “The Sessions” might have turned out to be a cheap and dirty comedy where sex and nudity are treated as something to be feared or ashamed of, but Ben Lewin, the writer and director, proves to have the insight, focus, and vision necessary to turn Mark O’Brien’s story into something that we can all appreciate as people who yearn to connect and be understood.
It is candid in its attitude toward sexuality. The scenes set in the bedroom between Mark and Cheryl have an appropriate balance of awkwardness, at least initially, and sensitivity without being mawkish. Although we see flesh, it is not about creating an air of titillation. The focus is always on the client and the surrogate: what it means for the former to be touched in areas that have grown foreign even to himself and the wall of professionalism that the latter must maintain for the sake of protecting her personal life.
Hawkes and Hunt are most convincing in their roles. Hawkes acts from the neck up–in a lateral position, no less–and evokes, from within is character, a consistently sharp sense of humor about his disability, his friends, and the experience that he feels he must go through in order to lead a complete life. I wished there had been longer close-ups of the actor’s face. Meanwhile, Hunt is so elegant in portraying a woman who struggles to keep up her defenses. I felt her character’s need to want to open up to her client, probably more than usual, but at the same time keeping her private life at a distance without losing grip of it.
One of the most interesting questions it answers is the difference between a sex surrogate and a prostitute. Admittedly, I did not have an answer prior to diving in. I thought that perhaps it is a simple quibble over semantics. However, as the picture goes on, it becomes increasingly clear that the two services are very different. I admired that the writer-director is confident with his material that he does not turn it into a debate. After watching the film, a lot of people may still find that both are neither respectable nor acceptable. In my mind, they do not need to be. What cannot be denied is that there is a need for them.
“The Sessions” is tender, insightful, and honest. Although the story involves a person paying another for a service in terms of sexual needs, the bigger picture, I think, is communication. We should be comfortable in telling our partner what feels good and certain things that can use some improvement. Because if these things are not communicated, we waste valuable time and energy reading minds.