Typically, a filmmaker mixing crippling disease, religious themes, and 45 minutes of intensely uncomfortable sex would get a box office flop with a poignant message about the human condition. The Sessions does the opposite of this. The Sessions tells the story of 38-year-old paraplegic poet Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes) as he goes on a series of marvelous misadventures in an attempt to create intimacy by hiring a sex surrogate to take his virginity. Instead of the dark, edgy piece of cinema one would expect when dealing with such an intimate and depressing topic, The Sessions is sickeningly sweet.
O'Brien is the most cheerful victim of polio that I have ever seen in cinema, and he remains that way throughout the movie. Despite being rejected by his first true love, almost dying during a power outage, and generally having everything go wrong, O'Brien only expresses grievances via jokes. These jokes just barely brush the surface of the intense internal frustration that he must be feeling. The Sessions dips its toes into such potentially deep subject matters as abstinence and prostitution, but pulls back before any real discussion can occur, making most of the dialog seem immature and, frankly, dishonest.
A central theme in The Sessions is the relationship between God and sex. The whole story is told through the eyes of O'Brien as he discusses he wish to "become a man" through the use of a sex surrogate with his Catholic priest. This could be a humorous situation, if the priest were opposed to O'Brien's sexcapades at all. Instead, the priest encourages it, even going so far as to tell O'Brien that God has "given him a pass." The attempts to give the priest a personality by giving him surfer waves and having him talk babes with O'Brien only serve to keep the stream of sweet but bland characters intact.
I really hoped that Helen Hunt would save this movie, but even Hunt could only do so much as the stereotypical prostitute with a heart of gold. Hunt did everything she could to turn this film into something worth two Sundance awards and several Golden Globe nominations: she was naked in bed, she was naked out of bed, she was naked in a pool of water. But in the end, it was the crying that killed her character. After only four sessions and a poem with O'Brien, she falls for him. This clichéd turn of events made no sense considering the strangely nonsexual teacher-student relationship that the couple had, and it sealed the fate of The Sessions. For a movie based on a true story, it is highly unbelievable. - Rachel Finley
A regular at Lenox Coffee in Harlem, Rachel Finley is a contributor to Indie Flava magazine. Currently a Macaulay Honors College attendee (CCNY), she’s a lover of movies that make her re-evaluate her life decisions.