Tuesday 10 January 2017

Movie Review: The Sessions (2012)

A drama about overcoming physical disability to satisfy a basic human need, The Sessions cannot move much beyond its basic premise.

Berkeley, California, in 1988. Aspiring poet Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes) lives most of his life in an iron lung, his muscles rendered fairly useless due to complications from polio. Mark functions in society thanks to the help of full time caretakers, but grows increasingly desperate to have sex. He consults with his priest Father Brendan (William H. Macy), before connecting with professional sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Helen Hunt).

Cheryl commits to working with Mark over six sessions. He gradually gets used to being touched and controlling his arousal, and works his way towards an ability to have intercourse. But there are emotional complications ahead, both between Mark and Cheryl and between Cheryl and her husband.

Directed and written by Ben Lewin based on the article by O'Brien, The Sessions is a small intimate story, and that is both its charm and its limitation. The desires of one man to experience the joy of sex and his subsequent encounters with a sex surrogate are intriguing, but provide constrained scope for a cinematic experience. Apart from featuring frank depictions of sexual mechanics, the story of The Sessions could have been told in a 15 minute television segment with no loss of impact.

The padding is apparent, and extends to quite useless side-stories involving Mark's caretakers, a predictable but nevertheless prolonged journey to the land where sex and love become confused dance partners, and some unconvincing attempts to capture the impact of the relationship on Cheryl's already unusual family life. The scenes featuring Mark providing a startled Father Brendan with a play-by-play describing the quest to lose his virginity inject some humour but also become repetitive.

The two leads almost salvage the film. John Hawkes delivers a physically punishing performance, mainly prostrate with his body painfully deformed. Helen Hunt was nominated for an Academy Award, seemingly as a reward for embracing nudity as a matter-of-fact business requirement.

The courage on show in The Sessions is mildly uplifting, but the film otherwise carries next to no lasting resonance.

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