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The Sessions Movie Review - -

The Sessions
  Reviewed by Damien Straker on November 6th, 2012
presents a film directed by Ben Lewin
Screenplay by Ben Lewin, based on the article 'On Seeing a Sex
   Surrogate' by Mark O'Brien

John Hawkes, Helen Hunt and William H. Macy
Running Time: 95 minutes
Rating: MA15+
Released: November 8th 2012



The Sessions is based on the life of journalist Mark O'Brien, adapting his article 'On Seeing a Sex Surrogate' (1990). Mark (played by John Hawkes) suffered from polio as a child. He is not so much paralysed but has a muscle disorder from the neck down, which makes his body immobile. At thirty-eight, he has spent his life either on a gurney board, with a portable respirator, or inside an iron lung, a large machine that provides him with oxygen. Simply, Mark is a virgin and due to the immovability of his neck, he hasn't been able to see his genitalia in thirty years. Embarrassed by his inexperience and his slender body, Mark seeks help from one of his carers Vera (Moon Bloodgood) and also a new priest in Father Brendan (William H. Macy) in confronting the issue. He asks Father Brendan for a blessing to explore his own sexuality, while Vera wheels him to meetings with a sex surrogate. The surrogate is there to provide sexual activity with a patient for therapeutic purposes. Mark's sex surrogate is Cheryl (Helen Hunt), who is extremely dogmatic, telling him that they can only have up to six sessions, and being extremely closed about her own personal life. She's aware that Mark's anxiety stems from his personal demons, including the death of his sister Karen at age seven. Cheryl's own life is plagued by indecision: she is caught in a loveless marriage because her husband is a disinterested layabout, sparking her admiration for someone as intelligent as Mark.

This deceptively small film remains entirely selfless about its own significance, but subtly envisions the great socio-political change within Hollywood and America cinema itself. Under more a liberal administration, Hollywood's attitude to sex, the most dangerous word in the American vocabulary, has become increasingly flexible and open-minded. The films being produced are now more frank and less conservative about sex and sexuality. The significance of this cultural change is that it evokes an equally changing national identity. Americans are often caricatured as God-fearing conservatives, when more accurately America was a nation built on strict Christian values. Some parts of America have retained this conservative outlook, while others are pushing towards liberalism and broader cultural understanding of other races and religions.

Films that speak more openly about sex and gender will help shape American values and identities. Recent films, like Easy A (2010) and Friends With Benefits (2011), have approached the subject of sex through comedy, which makes it more disarming and accessible for a broader audience. Earlier this year Shame turned the physicality of sex into a dramatic examination of psychological behaviour. The Sessions does the same, but it is not as intimidating or bleak a film. The sex is upfront, both physical and in verbal descriptions, and the actors aren't concealed. But the film is surprisingly funny and hopeful, not dour, bravely suggesting that physical connections are a means of liberating the soul. Much of the film's sincerity and honesty is drawn from real life sources, which enhances its authenticity. The film's director, Polish-Australian Ben Lewin, was affected by polio too, which makes him understandably sympathetic to the story. But wisely, the film closely traces O'Brien's article so that it's never overinflated with implausible melodrama.

There's a level of gentility to the film, expressed most earnestly through the performances. They're wonderful. John Hawkes, an underappreciated character actor, is the film's centrepiece and unfazed by the unconventional physicality of the part. He effortless draws O'Brien with a sense of humour and dry wit, but also projects a great amount of fear within this man as well.  If you find yourself awkwardly tilting your head during any close up shots, listen to the pitch of his voice and the way that he expresses his hesitation and his sense of dread in confronting his body and his own self-worth. For O'Brien, sex must become more than a compulsive life event. It is a means of understanding that he is an ordinary human being. Mark reflected on this in his article: "Another lesson learned: Sex is a part of ordinary living, not an activity reserved for gods, goddesses, and rock stars." But this is also a man who must also be at peace with himself, replacing his emotions and guilt over his sister Karen with a new form of intimacy.

The complexity of this role is further echoed in its relationship to Hunt's work too. Her dialogue has a different set of rhythms. Whereas Mark is nervous and unassured, Cheryl is direct and rigid in her actions and procedures. She is also very delicate and poised around her patients, which is a means of hiding her personal life. A once maligned actress, Helen Hunt eases into this role with such confidence and unflinching maturity, allowing the subtleties and minute features of her character to seem like the most naturalistic features of a real person. Her increasing attachment to Mark, contrasted by her unsatisfying home life and relationships, is convincing. Macy's role is fascinating too. Though he is very funny, he is not just for comic relief. He compliments the notion that people must break out of their generic roles if they are to find self-satisfaction. He describes Mark at the end of the film as "a dynamic voice in a paralysed body", but each of the three characters could initially be described like that. They help each other realise that people can be as complete and as mentally powerful as they are in any physical action. It's a lesson for Hollywood itself too.


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