As wildly inappropriate as it is to quote Salt-N-Peppa at the beginning of a review for this serious of a film, it’s a sentiment that this movie puts forward at every turn. I’ve seen some very graphic and occasionally uncomfortable movies in my days, but I’ve never seen something quite as unabashed and unapologetic as The Sessions. Our society has an incredible double standard when it comes to sex, one which both trivializes it and makes it taboo at the same time. We prevent our movies and TV shows from talking explicitly about sex or showing nudity in the fear that it will cross peoples’ lines of decency, yet at the same time you’d have to look very hard to find shows or movies that don’t reference it or revolve around it. For mainstream media, sex is completely suitable as a source of drama or comedy, yet we still act like going the extra step of talking about it without innuendo or censorship would be indecent. The Sessions has a very different view of the subject, offering forward one of the most frankly honest depictions of the act I’ve ever seen on screen. With the help of a strong focus on its characters’ humanity and some amazing performances from its three leads, The Sessions is an incredibly moving film despite it’s incredibly uncomfortable subject matter.
A man in an iron lung who wishes to lose his virginity contacts a professional sex surrogate with the help of his therapist and priest.
The most significant detail of the plot is that it flips the usual order of Love and Sex. As a result, it starts out by dealing with sex as nothing more than a natural part of the human body rather than a sign of love or affection. This will probably prove to be the most uncomfortable aspect of the movie for a lot of people, seeing as audiences are fairly used to nudity at this point but not used to this kind of a frame for it.
The fact that John Hawkes didn’t get an Oscar Nomination for his performance here is exclusively a reflection of how crowded the category was this year, not a reflection on the performance itself. Hawkes completely melts into the role of Mark, a poet and writer whose sharp mind has been betrayed by a disabled body, showing a mix of self-aware humor and incredible sadness. While the majority of viewers won’t be able to relate to his circumstances, we can all picture ourselves in the same position and imagine the incredible difficulty it would place upon every aspect of our lives. You can never quite tell if Mark has actually come to terms with the way god made him or if he’s putting on a brave face, but you get the sense that he can’t either.
Regarding Helen Hunt’s performance as Cheryl, I can now say that (in my opinion) no other person in her category deserves the Oscar more than Hunt. I loved Anne Hathaway’s performance in Les Miserables and recognize that she essentially has the win in the bag, but from an acting standpoint I was even more impressed with Hunt’s ability to depict someone struggling to be both caring for and detached from her patient. Hunt’s straight-forward view of sex is what sets the tone of the entire movie, but it’s the building uncertainty of how close she can get to help Mark without getting him unhealthily attached to her that really drives the film forward. After seeing so many of the likes of Warm Bodies and Beautiful Creatures, it’s nice to see a much more down to earth take on the “forbidden love” concept.
The biggest surprise for me, however, was how much I liked William H. Macy as Mark’s Priest, Father Brendan. Mark periodically comes to Brendan for confession, telling him about his experiences with Cheryl and asking him for his advice as both a priest and a friend. Macy’s character stands in for the audience in a very interesting way in that he’s obviously very uncomfortable with both the graphic sexual details of Jon’s sessions and the moral grey-area they occupy in the eyes of the church, but he still hears Mark out without complaining and gives him honest, heartfelt advice. Seeing the Mark and Brendan’s friendship develop remains my favorite part of The Sessions.
The Verdict: 8.0/10 – Pretty Damn Great
+ Oscar worthy/nominated performances by Hawkes, Hunt and Macy
+ Simple yet emotionally powerful direction from Ben Lewin
+ A nice, touching ending made all the more effective by the knowledge of its basis in truth
– Definitely not one to watch with family, friends, or anyone else for that matter
Rotten Tomatoes: 93%
Fast Film Reviews: 4/5