Good intentions both help and hinder this now celebrated story of a polio-stricken man, also a virgin, who hires a sex surrogate to learn the ways of sexual intercourse. It’s a feel-good affair from start to finish celebrating the triumph of one’s mind over one’s body, as well as the empowering nature of the sexual act. But what you see is what you get. Lewin’s simple, uncomplicated approach to the narrative is admirable, as he declutters the scenery, but it also feels staid and unmemorable.
The Sessions (2012) dir. Ben Lewin
Starring: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy, Moon Bloodgood, Annika Marks, W. Earl Brown, Blake Lindsley, Adam Arkin
By Alan Bacchus
Over John Hawkes’ filmography the familiar character actor seems to be characterized by two contrasting faces: the snarling hillbilly psychotic exemplified by startling turns in Martha Marcy May Marlene and Winter’s Bone, and the sympathetic ne’er-do-well as in The Perfect Storm or Contagion. As the emaciated polio victim, also a romantic poet bound to live horizontally on a gurney, Hawkes is most certainly the latter to the extreme, but he has never carried a picture before and he achieves this admirably.
Hawkes plays Mark O’Brien, inspired by a real person who authored the novel How I Became a Human Being: A Disabled Man’s Quest for Independence and was the subject of an Oscar-winning Short Documentary. His dilemma is simple; he’s never had sex and wants some. Other than the physical deficiencies, his faith would appear to be his complication. As a devout Catholic he’s constantly in confession and seeking advice from his minister, played by William H. Macy, who looks like he just stepped off the set of Shameless to appear in this. Macy’s role as the sounding board for Mark is too obvious. The religious conflict of sinning by fornicating outside the role of marriage is glanced over for humour, but nothing else in this relationship truly challenges him.
As the surrogate Helen Hunt is endearing. Initially she plays the role as sexual mentor with clinical detachment but she eventually succumbs to Mark’s romantic charms. Hawkes plays the awkwardness, fear and elation of his first sexual acts with the utmost integrity and realism. While not as explicit as the film has been made out to be in the press, it’s Helen Hunt’s comfort as an ‘older’ woman on camera in full nudity and the verbal expression of the stage-by-stage details of sexual intercourse that are most salacious.
In the background, the conflict from Hunt’s husband who feels threatened by Mark’s emotional attachment feels overly engineered, and the comic banter between Mark’s doting and conservative assistant and the motel manager, who is enthralled by the idea of a sex surrogate, only generates a mild smirk or two.
Unfortunately the drama in this unique situation is entirely on the surface. But The Sessions coasts remarkably far on the precise casting choices and the awkward but fulfilling sex education.