The Sessions is one of those special films that brings up a subject that’s never talked about. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen another film deal with sex and handicapped people. This film doesn’t just simply feature a handicapped person having sex, but rather it explores the different aspects of sex and how important it can be to a person that’s never been able to experience it. I got such a deeply endearing feeling watching this because it’s not crude in its dealings with sex, instead it’s very tender and brings a refreshingly adult attitude to the table.
The plot is actually based off a true story about a man who’s lived with polio since he was a child and can only move his head. He’s in his late 30’s and wants very much to experience sexual intercourse with a woman before death. Because he’s Catholic, he goes to his priest to ask permission first and his priest gives him the go ahead. His priest has a great line that I love: “In my heart I feel like he’ll give you a free pass on this one”. Religious individuals will most likely see this as offensive and sacrilegious but in the context it’s in, it’s very heartfelt and honest. With his priest’s blessing, he starts seeing a sexual surrogate who works with him to achieve sexual intercourse and other sex acts. I was attracted to this film because I mean honestly when do we ever talk about disabled people and sexuality? It’s very rare, if ever.
While there are comedic bits here and there, the purpose of this film isn’t to make people laugh but rather to affirm John Hawke’s character’s sexual needs and curiosities and also explore the idea of sex and intimacy. John Hawkes deserves so much praise for his performance here. He is so wonderfully convincing not only as a man suffering from polio but he’s also able to achieve this sense of purity that’s fascinating to watch. He isn’t crude about the subject of sex, he just wants to experience it at least once before he dies; he’s being human about it.
I actually think that’s a perfect way to describe The Sessions: it’s all very human. There’s a beautiful frankness to it all that makes it real. A lot of this comes from the ever talented Helen Hunt who plays Cheryl, the sex surrogate. She’s so open about things and uses very frank dialogue with Mark (John Hawkes) while keeping a calm demeanor. She serves not only as a wonderful sexual mentor but also as a much needed companion for Mark. It’s so incredibly sad to see Mark want desperately to experience intimacy and not be able to because of his physical state so when that begins to change with Cheryl, it’s truly beautiful.
I’m happy that Hunt got an Academy Award nomination for this because it’s one of the most refreshing performances I’ve ever seen. William H. Macy is also very good here as Mark’s priest who gives him the go ahead and has periodic talks with him about his sexual progress with Cheryl. I liked the scenes of them talking because it showed something that’s not often seen. Those scenes showed two men who are good friends and really care for one another having conversations about sex that wasn’t crude and didn’t focus on objectification. There’s a great sense of tenderness to it all and let me tell you if all priests were like Macy’s character I’d probably go back to church. Macy comes across as a caring friend doing his absolute best to help and give constructive advice, as apposed to shaming him for experiencing sex and for having natural biological desires.
I want to talk about the actual sessions and sex scenes because they’re very tastefully done. Hunt’s character Cheryl starts out by just talking to him and getting to know his situation before suggesting they get undressed and start doing some “body exercises”. Cheryl has some specific lines during these scenes that are just so right and demonstrate how sex should be for everyone really. She says things like “I want you to tell me when something feels good or bad” and “I don’t want you to tolerate anything”.
The way she coaches him and speaks to him is all very matter of fact and affirming. She gets to the bottom of some of the reasons he has such apprehension to sex and explains in a beautifully simple way why he doesn’t need to deprive himself. His character has deeply misguided guilt and a pretty low self esteem when it comes to sexual issues which serves as an interesting subject of conversation for him and Cheryl during their sessions. The sessions they have aren’t completely focused on achieving successful intercourse, they also talk about the deeper issues and about the human intimacy that we all deserve. I admire the graphic nature of the actual sex too because look if you’re really going to make this film and bring this kind of beautiful story to life, you have to do it justice. With some films, yes, you can show them kissing then cut to the next morning but here it’s an actual learning experience and there are lessons. They show her working with him patiently to get the right positioning and she uses anatomically correct language when describing things. But again, it’s never crude, it’s just very real and honest and I applaud them for doing this story justice.
The Sessions leaves you with a sense of satisfaction and you feel like you’ve seen an adult story about sex and intimacy done right. It’s all very tender, honest, and tasteful. And no, I don’t think because it has full frontal nudity and frank sexuality it’s tasteless. It just makes it human and very real. So as long as you are an adult, I very much recommend seeing this. You won’t regret it.