Movie Review: “The Sessions” – One Session At A Time

Written by Matthew da Silva December 01, 2012

Based on a true story, Mark O’Brien recounted his first sexual experiences in his aptly titled article “On Seeing A Sex Surrogate” in 1999. After polio left him paralyzed from the neck down from an early age, Mark was confined to an iron lung for most of his life due to the inability to breathe on his own. Seeking a means to lose his virginity, he hired a sex surrogate at the age of 38, hoping to shed the load of the virgin classification before it was too late. In a far less crass manner than “The 40 Year Old Virgin”, Mark searches for the meaning of love – in both the emotional and physical sense – in “The Sessions”.

Touchy Topics

At first glimpse, I thought the film was going to be a depressing view on the life of a man confined to an iron lung. I was pleased to find, though, that “The Sessions” was anything but that, with O’Brien’s quiet and ingenuous optimism keeping the crowd pushing for his success. His easygoing personality and humour at his situation reminded everyone around him in the film, as well as the theatre, that despite his setbacks he is human, and will not let a little iron lung stop him from living a full life.

Sex is a natural part of this human experience, and “The Sessions” offers the most accurate depiction of the sexual experience that I’ve seen in a film. Sex is never the grandeur, romanticized event that we see in movies, and O’Brien’s awkwardness in his first couple of sessions is most likely the result of these presuppositions. His sex surrogate, played by the brilliant Helen Hunt, quickly breaks down these barriers through her comfortable demeanor, appearing completely naked for a good portion of the film and reassuring him that the naked body is nothing to be awkward about.

Assurance Outdoes The Awkward 

To get prepared for his role, John Hawkes physically curved his own spine to take on the form of Mark O’Brien’s frame by lying on a soccer-ball-sized piece of foam before and during filming. Breaking even farther into O’Brien’s psyche, he read every article and poem published by the man, a determination that is displayed in his brilliant portrayal of O’Brien. Limited to the use of only his face, Hawkes’ expressions opened up the audience to what his character was feeling at every turn of the ride. Guided by his priest, played by William H. Macy, his direction never allows religion to interfere with O’Brien’s quest, telling him that God will give him “a free pass” to explore the desires inherent in human nature.

Helen Hunt’s brave portrayal of O’Brien’s sex surrogate should be commended as well. Most of the sessions between the two were unrehearsed, and Helen’s confidence in acting completely naked was essential in breaking down the barriers of embarrassment that O’Brien felt in dealing with the surrogate. Hunt never lets these barriers get in the way of helping O’Brien achieve his goals, using her grace and poise to guide O’Brien to his desires.

Oscar Buzz

This film is all about breaking down barriers. We often don’t associate stories of the physically disabled with sex, yet this film brings the discussion to the forefront, reminding us that though physical disabilities may change the landscape of sex, the desire and ability to perform the act is ingrained in the human experience. With some stellar acting, and a plot that never bears too heavily on the viewer, watch this movie and see it buzz all the way to awards season.

My Rating: 8/10 

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