The Sessions

With its dazzling performances, humour, and subtlety, The Sessions isn’t just about sex, writes SHELBY WHATT.

Helen Hunt John Hawkes shelby whyatt the sessions William H. Macy

In 1990, American poet Mark O’Brien published an article entitled ‘On Seeing a Sex Surrogate’. A polio survivor paralysed from the neck down, his essay chronicled his relationship with sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen-Greene.  Hired as a means of losing his virginity at the age of thirty-eight, the six therapy sessions they undertook sparked a friendship which lasted until O’Brien’s death in 1999.

Taking this story as its inspiration, Ben Lewin’s The Sessions offers a deeply moving exploration of self-discovery and physical intimacy. Confined almost permanently to an iron lung, O’Brien (John Hawkes) confronts the world with a wry humour which renders him endearing from the outset. After conducting interviews concerning the sex lives of fellow paraplegics, he enlists the services of sexual therapist Greene (Helen Hunt).  In the six sessions that follow, she attempts to teach O’Brien about sensation and familiarly.

The Sessions admittedly contains more than its fair share of nudity. But don’t let media discussions of its graphic sexuality fool you; concerned very much with bodily perception, the film’s true subject is the development of self-awareness. Both Hawkes and Hunt deliver dazzling and often very affecting performances.  It isn’t difficult to work out why The Sessions was labelled one of the breakout hits of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.

What I find especially impressive about The Sessions, however, is that it fails to fall into any of the pitfalls awaiting it. It manages to achieve a perfect balance between humour and sentimentalism. While the relationship which develops between O’Brien and Greene is evidently based on an emotional connection, it never reaches the level of melodrama. Their demonstrations of grief upon separating, such as Greene’s tears when she receives her final paycheque, are thus made all the more poignant.

In a similar manner, Levin avoids presenting Catholicism in a stereotypically oppressive light.  Rather than pass judgement on his decision to hire Greene, O’Brien’s priest-turned-friend (fantastically played by William H. Macy) just tells him to ‘go for it!’. The idea that premature ejaculation is a punishment for ‘immoral’ behaviour is entirely O’Brien’s; he is the one who allows an image of the Virgin Mary to loom over his iron lung. Feelings of guilt and shame stem, somewhat complexly, from within: contrary to what is usually suggested, they are not perpetuated by religious institutions.  In fact, Hawkes and Macy share some of the funniest scenes in the entire film.

Superbly crafted and wonderfully cast, it’s clear that The Sessions deserves far more than a mere Best Supporting Actress nomination at this year’s Oscars. Its discrete beauty provides a refreshing contrast to the self-indulgence of heavyweights such as Lincoln and Les Misérables. I suppose that’s why I find the media’s preoccupation with nudity in the film so frustrating. Obsessed with forty-nine year old Hunt’s decision to bear all when, brace yourselves, she’s not even had any work done (!), they fail to grasp its true message.

While it may ostensibly focus on the physicality of human relationships, The Sessions is about much more than just sex. Presenting a warm, open and touchingly humorous account of one man’s self-realisation, The Sessions deserves to shine this awards season.