Watching "The Sessions"
Published on December 12, 2012 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I review the new movie "The Sessions."

Here's an excerpt:

"Sex, disability and religion are three subjects mainstream movies tend to be skittish about, and the new film 'The Sessions' juggles all three with seeming ease. This doesn’t mean that 'The Sessions' is a great film — it’s not — but it is unusually candid and direct. It’s also funny, smart, interesting and extremely well acted, even during its weaker moments.

'The Sessions' tells the true story of Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), a Bay Area poet and reporter who is paralyzed from the neck down as a result of childhood polio, and uses an iron lung to breathe. While researching an article about sex and the disabled, he decides that he wants to experience sex himself, and is eventually referred to a professional sex surrogate, Cheryl (Helen Hunt). Sex surrogates are basically sex therapists, but in addition to discussing sexual problems with their patients, they are willing to engage in intimate contact with them to help them achieve their therapeutic goals.

O’Brien does not make his decision lightly: He consults his priest (William H. Macy), with whom he meets regularly, and when his priest gives him the go-ahead, he arranges his first appointment with Cheryl. Most of the film details O’Brien’s relationship with Cheryl, who is married and has a son and strives to keep her private life separate from her work, but director Ben Lewin (who happens to be a polio survivor) spends a fair amount of time with secondary characters, such as O’Brien’s attendants, Vera and Rod (Moon Bloodgood and W. Earl Brown), who get him to his appointments, encourage him, and speak openly about their own sexual experiences. Unsurprisingly, O’Brien finds himself growing attached to Cheryl.

Avoiding mawkishness is one of 'The Sessions’' biggest accomplishments. They film isn’t overly sentimental or rosy, and it depicts O’Brien’s journey and daily life as one filled with joy, but also pain. O’Brien is depicted as a good man, but his disability is not portrayed as ennobling, or a blessing in disguise, which is refreshing. Cheryl is also an interesting character. She believes in her work, and her ability to help people with unusual sexual hang-ups or difficulties, but still finds herself challenged and occasionally overwhelmed by O’Brien’s need and condition. 'The Sessions' is also populated with interesting secondary characters, such as the priest and Vera. We learn a great deal about the seriousness with which O’Brien takes his Catholic faith, and grow to appreciate the decency of his attendants.

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