I’ll be honest and admit right up front that the primary reason I wanted to see The Sessions was hearing that Helen Hunt, who plays professional sex surrogate Cheryl, is naked much of the time. That’s the hook, to be sure. All the press Hunt did for the movie seemed to focus on the nudity and her age (she’s 49). After seeing the film I can’t believe she was actually nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. She’s fine in the role, but the only truly notable aspect is how often she disrobes during this rather superficial tale of idealized puppy love.
The Sessions is based on an autobiographical article written by the late Mark O’Brien, “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate.” I haven’t read the article, so I can’t speak on the adaptation’s accuracy. My opinions here are based only on what is presented in the film, with no disrespect to the real-life individuals being portrayed. The role of Mark is very ably handled by John Hawkes, who certainly deserved attention from the Academy far more than Hunt. Though I was familiar with Hawkes from films such as Winter’s Bone, Martha Marcy May Marlene, and Contagion, I absolutely forgot I was watching an actor. Hawkes vanishes into the role, digging deeper into the heart of Mark than Ben Lewin’s rather thin screenplay allows (Lewin also directed).
Mark is a polio survivor who was left largely immobilized by the disease. He can speak and use a pencil to dial a phone or type his poetry on a typewriter. The story takes place in the ‘80s, hence the old school tech. Mark sleeps and spends much of his day in an iron lung. He gets around on a gurney, initially motorized but later only manned by an aide. His aides are frequently dismayed by his erections and ejaculations that occur while bathing him. As he explains, he’s not paralyzed per se. He retains normal sensation throughout his body.
Enter the sex surrogate. Mark is 38 and a virgin. A sex surrogate would provide him the opportunity to lose his virginity before it’s too late (his life expectancy is limited due to the ravages of polio). Being Catholic, he has even consulted his priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy). Though Brendan initially expresses a little concern about sex outside of marriage, he concludes that God would probably grant a “free pass” in Mark’s case. So the sessions begin, limited to six, building from body exploration exercises to full-on intercourse.
It’s not at all difficult to sympathize with Mark’s predicament and to understand his motivation. With a normal, mature mind and a fully functioning sex organ, it’s no wonder that Mark wants nothing more than to experience physical intimacy. But watching The Sessions, I was much more interested in learning more about what makes Cheryl tick. How can a woman do such a job and go home to her husband every night? Interestingly, Cheryl seems to keep her husband Josh (Adam Arkin) at arm’s length, disinterested in a physical relationship. Their teen son picks up on the tension, but apparently has no idea that mom has sex with other men for a living. I felt the more interesting story was lurking somewhere in that household. But rather than going deeper, Lewin keeps the tone fairy light, jokey, and ultimately superficial.
I didn’t quite believe it when Cheryl’s feelings for Mark begin to go beyond professional. This isn’t Hunt’s fault. She does an effective job of showing that this businesswoman remains passionless during work hours. Why would she suddenly have stronger feelings for this particular patient? Surely it can’t be the poem he writes her, which is basically junior high-level piffle. It’s something about her relationship with her stay-at-home husband that is deeply unsatisfying. Alas, we are never really allowed inside Cheryl’s mind. And regarding the Oscar nomination, Moon Bloodgood is at least as good as Hunt, playing a devoted aide of Mark’s—the only primary female character who doesn’t fall for him. At its core, The Sessions is nothing if not a staggeringly honest exploration of the male ego. Not only does Mark turn out to be quite the chick magnet, he’s worried his equipment will be too large to even fit inside his therapist.
The Sessions was shot digitally and the 1080p transfer presented on the Blu-ray offers a pristine image. Seriously, there just isn’t anything to complain about in terms of clarity, detail, black levels, or color reproduction. Even with a very modest $1 million budget, this is a terrific looking film. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix doesn’t carry any problems either, though it’s not especially exciting. The audio for the entire film consists primarily of dialogue, with Marco Beltrami’s score never drawing attention to itself. Everything sounds fine, even the halting, pinched delivery Hawkes uses for Mark. No issues to report with this high definition presentation.
Supplemental features include two wisely deleted scenes and a handful of short EPK featurettes. One deleted scene expands a bit on Cheryl’s relationship with her son. It would’ve only worked in the film had they chosen to focus more closely on Cheryl. The other is Mark’s fantasy sequence involving a bunch of can-can dancing nurses that would’ve only served as comic relief (and likely wouldn’t have drawn laughs). Of the five promotional featurettes (all under five minutes), the best is “John Hawkes Becomes Mark O’Brien” as it sheds some light on the process Hawkes underwent to portray the disabled character.
If I can recommend The Sessions, it is not for Helen Hunt’s nude scenes after all. Though she still looks fantastic and was very gutsy to strip down so often, the nudity is functional rather than titillating. The best thing about the film, hands down, is John Hawkes’ performance. Not only does he convey the physical limitations Mark lives with, he perfectly captures his self-deprecating humor and extreme apprehension during the early sessions.