The implications of sexuality in contemporary films have been somewhat cynical as of late. From the sex-addled perspective of Steve McQueen’s Shame to awkward attempts of cunnilingus in Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg, most sexually-charged films of late have treated the act of sex as a means of conquest. My appreciation for a scene in Rian Johnson’s Looper that treated sex as a pleasurable human necessity is followed up by Ben Lewin’s wonderfully tender The Sessions. Lewin exercises a candid approach to his material, whereupon he frames sexuality and nudity with an urgent sense of intimacy.
Polio survivor and poet Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) does his musings through the day in an iron lung. Afforded the opportunity to go outside for a few hours during the day, Mark is remarkably sociable, offering a positive worldview that he shares with his aides and priest. As a freelance journalist, Mark embarks upon an assignment of sexual discovery. Interviewing the disabled, Mark musters up the courage to vocalize his sexual frustrations. Due to his handicap, his needs require a bit of finesses and delicacy. This is when he contacts a sex therapist. Limited to six sessions, Cheryl (Helen Hunt) provides Mark’s introduction to an entirely new worldview of sexual discovery and affection.
The professionalism of Cheryl’s character, coupled with Mark’s spirituality, gives The Sessions a dense thematic narrative. Mark, whose experience dating women (let alone having sex) is very limited, succumbs to emotional strain as his sessions reach their end point. Cheryl too, finds herself in a position where she connects to Mark on more than a physical level. The tenderness between the two, the careful exploration of their carnal desires, is something evoked with great skill by both Hawkes and Hunt. Hawkes, who is confined to utilizing slight neck and facial movements, gives an extraordinary performance, particularly in the wake of gritty performances in Winter’s Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene. Hunt, too, delves into a character that balances the emotional work of professionalism and sexuality with deft skill.
The Sessions suffers when the two actors are not together, largely because so much of the draw of this film is seeing a captivating romance blossom between them. But the film is emotionally rigorous, perpetually hopeful yet at times, quite devastating. The picture could have benefited from a stronger directorial presence, as the formal qualities of the picture are somewhat lacking. But from a writing and performance perspective, The Sessions rejects cynicism in favor of sincerity – it’s a thematic element that goes over with great affect.