THE SESSIONS is the true story of Mark O’Brien, a poet paralyzed by polio who’d like to lose his virginity during the time he has left. He’s long outlived the predictions for his life expectancy and, as a 38-year-old man who has to spend most of his day trapped inside an iron lung, he doesn’t know how much time he’s going to have left to make something like that happen. He wishes it was as easy as finding someone who would fall in love with him both emotionally and physically, but, with his body as cripped as it is, that’s a bit of a tough sell, even with a mind as sharp as his.
In this case, O’Brien (played by the always solid John Hawkes) struggles with disobeying his own strong Catholic faith, in order to have sex out of wedlock, yet once he gets a pass from his local priest (William H. Macy, who looks and feels plenty miscast here), he’s got a plan to achieve his goal – a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt), which sounds like a prostitute, but apparently there’s a therapeutic distinction between them. This puts O’Brien on a path to exploring his body, his feelings and his relationships as they relate to his own sexual inexperience.
THE SESSIONS is really light fare, and while Hawkes elevates the film with his performance, Ben Lewin’s movie feels at times like empty calories. You’ll feel nice watching it in the moment, but the second it’s done, you’re left craving something a bit more substantial. In fact, the film breezes by at a swift 94 minutes that by the time Hawkes is staring intercourse in the face, it feels as if the movie just started. Everything moves along rather quickly that Lewin’s film is a missed opportunity to really examine some of the internal conflicts O’Brien is having beyond what’s on the surface or some of the strife Hunt’s Cheryl is experiencing at home, which pushes her towards a more personal connection with Hawke’s character. It never seems to stop long enough to let you take in the peculiarity of this real life situation or what its characters are going through as a result of being part of it. THE SESSIONS, at times, is flippant in its approach to O’Brien’s ordeal, as, if it wasn’t for the iron lung and his disability, the same situation could have been played up for bigger laughs in a raunchy sex comedy.
When THE SESSIONS does allow itself to get deep, namely with O’Brien’s struggles to differentiate sex from love, attachment, infatuation, that’s where the film shines, and Hawkes does his best work. He’s able to show the complications of a grown man who’s really no more knowledgeable in the realm of sex as a teenage boy. He conflates the physical with the emotional, and it makes for an interesting depiction of a man who is incredibly bright, just not when it comes to the things he knows nothing about. The film does him a disservice at times by poking fun at his fears of the unknown, specifically his frightening perusal of sex textbooks for how things work and the worst case scenarios that could pop up, and, while there may be a whimsy about these moments that allow the film from getting too serious, it’s that missing seriousness that would have grounded the film in the reality it came from. I don’t know that it’s comical that a grown man relegated to an iron lung for much of his life (he can stay outside for three or four hours at a time with a respirator handy without issue) experiences some missteps in wanting to have sex. That’s like laughing at the mentally handicapped when they face some sort of difficulty in achieving one of their dreams. THE SESSIONS walks a very fine line in trying to have its cake and eat it, too, and I’m not really sure it succeeds in doing so, because of how it often plays some of its moments for very small laughs, but laughs nonetheless.
Hawkes is a pleasure to watch as always, and a snarky Moon Bloodgood makes the most of her part, but I’m just not a fan of how the entire film comes together. There’s a made-for-TV atmosphere to it throughout, and, if not for its recognizable cast, it could easily pass for something you would’ve seen on the ABC Family Channel (well, the sex and nudity would pose a problem in taking that avenue, too). I wouldn’t be surprised to parts of THE SESSIONS get their share of the love come awards season, but this one just didn’t do it for me.
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