You are here

The joy of sex, and love

Published: 
Sunday, December 23, 2012

 

“All you need is love,” the Beatles told us (and then added, in case it wasn’t clear, “Love is all you need”). Sage advice, but what if you couldn’t get love, through no fault of your own? The Sessions, written and directed by Ben Lewin and based on actual events, tells the story of someone denied the pleasures of romantic love all his life and what he decided to do about it. It’s a wonderfully funny, moving and unlikely comedy-drama, and one of the best films of the year.
 
This is the kind of movie that people who appreciate not having their intelligence looked down upon long for, but don’t get often enough. It has complex, three-dimensional characters you care about, and whom you think of long after leaving the cinema. There are no attempts to employ cheap tactics in the name of comedy, or to manipulate the audience for the sake of easy sentimentality. This is a movie that earns its eventual tears.
 
The Sessions is inspired by the true story of Mark O’Brien, played by John Hawkes. As a boy Mark was struck by a severe case of polio, which left him paralysed from the neck down and in need of an iron lung to help him breathe. His mind remained intact, however, and he eventually graduated from university, attending classes on a gurney and with the help of a respirator.
 
It is now 1988 and Mark lives in California, where he is a freelance journalist and a poet. He spends most of his day in the bedroom of his house in the iron lung, which looks like a miniature submarine, his head poking turtle-like out of one end, using a stick gripped between his teeth to tap out words on his typewriter. He has a succession of caregivers who see after all of his physical needs, from giving him a bath to answering the phone.
 
One of these caregivers is the lovely Amanda (Annika Marks), with whom Mark falls in love. When he reveals his feelings she turns him down and leaves. Sadly this is how it has always been, for Mark, at 38, has never had a girlfriend and is still a virgin. Luckily, or unluckily, he is able to achieve an erection. He yearns not just for love, but what most heterosexual males want and take for granted: the ability to have sex with a woman.
 
Mark receives an assignment from a local newspaper to write an article about the sex lives of the physically handicapped. In the process, which involves him conducting a series of comic interviews, he discovers the remarkable existence of “sex surrogates”—people who help others who have trouble with physical intimacy by having sex with them. He decides to avail himself of this service. 
 
However, as a believer in God (after all, he wryly observes, he must have someone he can blame his predicament on) and a Roman Catholic, he feels he must get official sanction from the church.
He goes to see Fr Brendan (William H Macy, on fine form), the sort of liberal-minded priest who thinks he’s cooler than he actually is but is likeable nonetheless. Fr Brendan hears Mark’s pre-deed confession. “My penis speaks to me,” Mark tells him.
 
The goodly priest, who reasons with his heart more than he does through the inflexible prism of dogma, gives him the okay.
 
His free pass from the big guy upstairs in hand, Mark engages the services of a sex surrogate named Cheryl Cohen-Green. Played with sublime candour by Helen Hunt, Cheryl is all blonde-haired radiance and gentle-but-firm understanding. She lays down the rules up front: though she has sex for money she’s not a prostitute (“A prostitute wants your return business. I don’t”), and there is a maximum number of sessions, six, with any one client. Cheryl’s husband Josh (Adam Arkin), clearly a highly evolved human being, calls her a saint.
 
The scenes involving the sessions are some of the more honest and titillation-free depictions of sex you’re likely to see on screen. (They’re also wickedly funny—the cunnilingus scene is particularly hilarious.) Mark’s gradual overcoming of his anxiety and guilt and embracing of his sexuality is a joy to behold. And there’s also the pleasurable shock of seeing something you never
witness in a Hollywood movie: the celebration of a middle-aged woman’s naked body. Hunt’s performance is as brave as it is accomplished.
 
Predictably, Mark begins to engage in what the experts call transference, and finding in Cheryl an all-purpose lover/mother/friend, falls desperately in love. What comes as a surprise, however, is that Cheryl begins to develop feelings for Mark, too. Thankfully the film steers clear of any contrived and schmaltzy resolution. The sessions end abruptly, and Mark and Cheryl part ways.
 
“Love is a journey,” Fr Brendan tells Mark by way of consolation, and so it proves. What happens next is as beautiful and life-affirming as it is heartbreaking.
 
Ben Lewin, himself a polio survivor, creates in his protagonist a character of satisfying complexity. Mark is an engagingly contradictory and human jumble of thoughts, feelings and desires. And the message that Lewin is slyly able to get across—sex is good—is more subversive than it might first appear. (Disclosure: I had the pleasure of introducing a screening of The Sessions alongside Lewin at the Toronto International Film Festival in September.)
 
Relative newcomer Hawkes, who isn’t handicapped, and who spends almost the entire movie lying on his back, is thoroughly convincing in his role. He swings brilliantly from guffaw-inducing self-deprecation to poignant self-pity and back again, with essentially the gestures of his face alone. He taps brilliantly into the essence of his character, so that while you never forget that Mark is handicapped, you’re not constantly hit over the head with the fact, either. It’s a performance to remember.
 
The Sessions is inspired by the true story of Mark O’Brien, played by John Hawkes. As a boy Mark was struck by a severe case of polio, which left him paralysed from the neck down and in need of an iron lung to help him breathe. His mind remained intact, however, and he eventually graduated from university, attending classes on a gurney and with the help of a respirator.
 
 

Disclaimer

User comments posted on this website are the sole views and opinions of the comment writer and are not representative of Guardian Media Limited or its staff.

Guardian Media Limited accepts no liability and will not be held accountable for user comments.

Guardian Media Limited reserves the right to remove, to edit or to censor any comments.

Any content which is considered unsuitable, unlawful or offensive, includes personal details, advertises or promotes products, services or websites or repeats previous comments will be removed.

Before posting, please refer to the Community Standards, Terms and conditions and Privacy Policy

User profiles registered through fake social media accounts may be deleted without notice.