Title: THE SESSIONS
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Director: Ben Lewin
Screenwriter: Ben Lewin, based on Mark O’Brien’s article “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate” in The Sun magazine, May 1990 issue 174
Cast: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy, Moon Bloodgood, Annika Marks, Adam Arkin, Rhea Perlman
Screened at: Review 1, NYC, 10/17/12
Opens: October 19, 2012
If you were a male American in the 1950s you were likely to be frustrated. In the last decade before the introduction of the birth control pill and, more important, the liberation movement of the late sixties, most women did not agree to “all-the-way” sex. They believed that by “giving in” to the men, as the women saw the act, the men would brag about the experience, women would feel cheap, and most of all, the men would not bother calling again or even thinking of proposing marriage.
How things have changed! Nowadays virginity is looked upon without particular favor by most in both genders, men might stop calling not if women “gave in” but rather the opposite, and marriage proposals are more likely if healthy sex is practiced as this would lead to greater and deeper affection.
Generalities, sure. But in the case of Mark O’Brien, whose article in The Sun magazine May 1990 “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate” inspired Ben Lewin’s narrative film, the author’s release from the prison of virginity at the age of thirty-eight encourages him to seek a permanent relationship and delivers great joy to his life. But Mark is not like Steve Carell’s Andy in Judd Apatow’s “The Forty Year Old Virgin.” He has had no sexual experience until then only because he acquired polio at the age of six after which he is condemned to spend his life in an iron lung, immobile, dependent on the machine for air and on caretakers for basic survival. In other words he is much like the character Jean-Do in Julian Schnabel’s “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.”
The film is on a higher level than you might find on TV’s Hallmark Hall of Fame, nor would the practices illustrated be nearly so explicitly shown on that program. To underline the idea that sex is a normal, human drive that should not be repressed, “The Sessions” exhibits a range of sexual activity that could never be described as porn but which involves full frontal and back nudity by a major American actress. The result is a heartfelt drama with considerable comedy, with the principal male role so endearing that we in the audience could easily understand how a woman might want to be his lifelong partner despite his profound disability. It is a lovely story to watch.
Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) takes an interest in sex in his late thirties while under the care of the beautiful Amanda (Annika Marks), a desire that he had repressed because of his Catholic upbringing, his guilt in thinking erroneously that he was responsible for the death of his seven-year-old sister, and his belief that nobody would want to couple with such an invalid. He confesses to Father Brendan (William H. Macy) that he has “impure” thoughts. Brendan, after seeking guidance from on high for just a moment—after first brushing away the idea as “fornication”—tells his parishioner to “go for it,” after which Mark gets in touch with both a sex therapist and with Cheryl Cohen Green (Helen Hunt), a sex surrogate who has “nothing against prostitutes” but notes that she limits her sessions to six. Each time that he is wheeled to her at a motel by Vera (Moon Bloodgood), his assistant who had taken over after Amanda is scared away by her boss’s proposal of marriage, Cheryl goes step by step into the process of ending the man’s virginity, a slow procedure since he is at first terrified.
Among the humorous commentary from Mark are his views that he believes that God has a sense of humor, and that his religion allows him to blame someone all-powerful for his troubles. As translated to the screen from Mark’s poetry and particularly from his article “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate,” director Ben Lewin, himself a largely recovered victim of polio, puts across the story without excessive schmaltz, evoking from John Hawkes a performance that lets us into his hopes and fears, as the cliché goes. Helen Hunt’s natural performance as an avatar of sex without guilt makes “The Sessions” the kind of film that I would have liked seeing ten times in the 1950’s—each time with a different girlfriend.
Rated R. 95 minutes © 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – A-
Acting – B+
Technical – B+
Overall – A-