'The Sessions' isn't really about sex at all

Posted Online: Nov. 15, 2012, 10:38 am
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By Roger Ebert
You can tell from his reedy voice that speaking, for Mark, is an effort. He's 38 years old and after contracting polio, he has spent most of those years in an iron lung. His body is thin and twisted. He depends on Vera, his caregiver, to wheel him around on a gurney during the few hours a day he can be out of the mechanism. Before he was embodied as a character in "The Sessions," he was a real person named Mark O'Brien, and this film was inspired by a 1990 article he wrote titled "On Seeing a Sex Surrogate."
He has feeling all over his body. He has an instinct his time is running out. He would like to experience sexual intercourse with a woman at least once before he dies. At a time when sex is as common in the movies as automobiles, his need and his attempt to fulfill it require an awesome dedication. The film is a reminder of how unique sexual intimacy is, and even how ennobling.
Mark is played by John Hawkes, who has emerged in recent years as an actor of amazing versatility. What he does here is not only physically challenging, but requires timing and emotion to elevate the story into realms of deep feeling and, astonishingly, even comedy. More than most movies, "The Sessions" depends on two actors if it is to work at all -- and here Helen Hunt provides a performance of tact and delicacy.
She plays Cheryl, a sex surrogate in Berkeley. At a time in the 1980s when sex surrogates were fodder for comedians, she insists on the legitimacy of her profession and explains the ground rules to Mark. They will have six meetings, no more. They are not working together in order to fall in love, but to achieve a specific physical purpose. He understands this, although there may come times during the film when they both feel challenged. Their circumstance is complex and very far from casual.
What's especially brilliant is the way the movie, written and directed by Ben Lewin, is specific about precisely what is happening. Although the movie is rated R, and Helen Hunt is seen nude at some length, no genitals or actual intercourse is ever seen. That's wise. It's the idea that counts. As she tells him specifically what she's doing and why she's doing it, it becomes almost as fresh for us as it is for Mark.
The film benefits enormously by the presence of an onlooker -- a confidant and adviser who, as it happens, is himself celibate. Perhaps his lack of sexual activity better qualifies him. This is Father Brendan (William H. Macy), Mark's confessor and parish priest. Mark is serious about his Catholicism and turns to the priest for guidance. And Father Brendan, whose long hair faintly evokes the Beach Boys, is serious as well.
When Mark goes to confession, it takes place after his gurney is wheeled into the church and positioned before the altar. This might seem to be a placement for dramatic purposes, but my guess is the confession booth is physically impossible for Mark, and the place before the altar lends their time together a special solemnity.
It also provides a setting for a moment of truth we know will happen. In theory, sexual intercourse outside of marriage -- or for any reason precluding the possibility of conception -- is regarded by the church as a mortal sin. What Mark proposes to do is a sin. He needs spiritual guidance. Why can't he simply have sex and then -- quick! -- make a good confession? It doesn't work that way. There are no loopholes.
But perhaps there is a higher good, one that involves mercy and compassion. Father Brendan knows all about Mark and his case, and comforts Mark with a sublime line of dialogue: "I know in my heart that God will give you a free pass on this one. Go for it." If that line isn't directly from Mark O'Brien's original magazine article, it should be.
Mark at first has inevitable episodes of premature ejaculation. He is a bomb waiting years to explode. Kindly, gently, Cheryl guides him through their sessions, while at the same time we get glimpses of her own imperfect private life.
"The Sessions" isn't really about sex at all. It is about two people who can be of comfort to each other, and about the kindness that forms between them. This film redeems and corrects countless brainless and cheap sex scenes in other movies. It's a reminder that we must be kind to one another.

'The Sessions'

MPAA rating: R for strong sexuality including graphic nudity and frank dialogue

Length: 95 minutes

Verdict: 3 1/2 stars


Local events heading

  Today is Monday, Sept. 22, the 265th day of 2014. There are 100 days left in the year.

1864 -- 150 years ago: The board of education has granted Thursday as a holiday for the children, with the expectation that parents who desire to have their children attend the Scott County Fair will do so on that day and save irregularity the rest of the week.
1889 -- 125 years ago: The guard fence around the new cement walk at the Harper House has been removed. The blocks are diamond shape, alternating in black and white.
1914 -- 100 years ago: The Rev. R.B. Williams, former pastor of the First Methodist Church, Rock Island, was named superintendent of the Rock Island District.
1939 -- 75 years ago: Abnormally high temperatures and lack of rainfall in Illinois during the past week have speeded maturing of corn and soybean crops.
1964 -- 50 years ago: Installation of a new television system in St. Anthony's Hospital, which includes a closed circuit channel as well as the three regular Quad-Cities channels, has been completed and now is in operation.
1989 -- 25 years ago: When the new Moline High School was built in 1958, along with it were plans to construct a football field in the bowl near 34th Street on the campus. Wednesday afternoon, more than 30 years later, the Moline Board of Education Athletic Board sent the ball rolling toward the possible construction of that field by asking superintendent Richard Hennigan to take to the board of education a proposal to hire a consultant.

(More History)