This is a film review from Patrice Bowman, who writes the newly revamped WEEKEND blog column: “The 21st Century through a Monochrome Lens: Re-examining Older Films.”
Although I can do without gratuitous sex scenes in my flicks, I congratulate “The Sessions,” an independent film by Ben Lewin, for attempting to do what many mainstream Hollywood pictures don’t do: approach sexual relations with the mature understanding of the emotional resonance the act has. Even as “The Sessions” stumbles in its fictionalizations of a true story, it encourages us to approach human sexuality in a healthy, respectful manner — a message more than appropriate in Yale’s uncertain sexual climate.
In 1988 Berkeley, Calif., Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), paralyzed by polio at a young age, makes a name for himself as a writer. He relates his ordeals to Father Brendan (William H. Macy) with funny self-deprecation; O’Brien says about his disability, “I believe in a God with a sense of humor. I would find it absolutely intolerable not to be able to blame someone for all of this.” But not even his humor can make him forget that he’s four years shy of being the real 40-Year-Old Virgin. With the help of his new assistant Vera (Moon Bloodgood), he contacts sex surrogate Cheryl (Helen Hunt). The sessions start uncomfortably, but they begin to blossom into emotionally intimate meetings as O’Brien overcomes his religious views on premarital sex and Cheryl temporarily escapes her bossy husband, Josh (Alan Arkin). But this bliss can’t last.
Writer-director Lewin’s own survival of polio prevents his script from portraying O’Brien as pathetic. Hawkes utilizes Lewin’s words, his own gravelly voice and bodily contortions in order to realize successfully O’Brien’s mixture of pain and humor. Hunt balances the role of a warm sex therapist with that of a frustrated wife. She even nails that funny Salem, Mass. accent. Her characterization removes some of the exhibitionism inherent in her role. As much as Hunt bares it all, though, Hawkes never follows suit. Lewin avoids full frontal male nudity to avoid the infamous NC-17 rating; it’s understandable, but it’s less honest — and less balanced — sexually.
This being Mark and Cheryl’s story, the smaller characters vary in quality. Bloodgood conveys a believable transformation from cold humorlessness to supportive, deadpan funniness. Macy has only two modes in this film: accept O’Brien’s clearly sacrilegious actions with odd calmness and take part in some not-so-priestly behavior, like smoking and drinking. Worst of all, Arkin is an unconvincing antagonist who trashes O’Brien’s poem for Cheryl just to show how that he’s a jerk.
Despite the film’s weakness in some of the characterizations, the film’s primary strength lies in its life-affirming tone towards sex. This screening couldn’t have been timelier on Yale’s campus. Two days after the screening, the Communication and Consent Educators and the Women’s Center held an event on how to prevent and address sexual assault, in response to Amherst College student Angie Epifano’s earlier online account of her rape. As much as all this talk draws much-needed attention to the subject of sexual assault, “The Sessions” offers a mostly positive outlook on sexual awakening and potential.