Films about virgin guys wanting to get laid aren’t usually particularly memorable. The stakes are too low when the awkward men who desperately want sex are only foiled by their inhibitions or lack of social credibility. These guys are not presented with the immense obstacles to having sex that are faced by the 38-year-old virgin Mark O’Brien, who in The Sessions is determined to overcome his disability in order to have sex with a woman. Mark not only lacks experience, he also faces physical restrictions, inner conflict relating to his religious upbringing and a general lack of understanding from society about sexuality and the disabled. Closely based on a true story, The Sessions is a very impressive film about overcoming imposing obstacles.
After contracting polio as a child, Mark was paralysed from the neck down and lived the majority of his life in an iron lung. As an adult he worked as a writer, mainly writing poetry and journalism. While researching an article about sex and disabled people, he decided he wanted to have sex himself; something he previously felt was not a possibility. His 1990 article ‘On Seeing a Sex Surrogate’ detailed his experiences hiring a sex surrogate to lose his virginity. That article forms the basis of The Sessions. Directed and written by Australian-born Ben Lewin, The Sessions takes potentially confronting and difficult subject matter and turns it into a compassionate, warm and frequently funny feel-good film. While made independently of the studio system, it nevertheless translates as a crowd-pleasing light drama that has since been picked up and released by a major Hollywood studio.
This is an extraordinary accomplishment because mainstream cinema is rarely so positive, let alone comfortable, with portraying sexual diversity. Hollywood is very good at reproducing a version of sex based on the desires of bland heterosexual boys and men-children, which frequently borders on the pornographic and short changes huge segments of the audience including heterosexual men who aren’t completely unimaginative. Hollywood is also very good at ridiculing and demonising anything that strays from completely ‘conventional’ straight male sexual expression. So while cinema is full of sexual imagery, it very rarely contains depictions of sex that are erotic, affirming, adventurous, fun or intimate.
More often than not it is films containing sexual acts that are not considered ‘standard’ or ‘typical’ that stand out for portraying sex in a way that feel sincere. The portrayal of a dominant/submissive relationship in Secretary (Steven Shainberg, 2002) provided one of the most intensely romantic onscreen couplings in the past decade while the everything-and-anything-goes approach to sex in Shortbus (John Cameron Mitchell, 2006) resulted in one of cinema’s most affectionate and funny films about love and sex. More recently Weekend (Andrew Haigh, 2011) directly challenged attitudes toward representations of sexual identity as the two characters discuss how straight audiences respond to homosexuality, without the film ever compromising the moving love story at its core. The Sessions has some commonality with these films for portraying sex in terms of ‘otherness’, although it is not a film that seems like it wants to be defined as something overtly challenging the dominant paradigm. This is partially what makes it so successful.
The main key to why The Sessions works as well as it does is the focus on Mark as a three-dimensional person. The film very quickly establishes his world as one of extreme limitations where he requires the care of others, and then it allows the character to shine through. Taking a lot of character information from the real Mark’s article, actor John Hawkes expresses Mark’s concerns, hopes and enthusiasm for what he is doing. He is a man who rationally understands that everybody deserves to be touched and made to feel good by another person, yet has doubts from his religious up-bringing that constantly make him second-guess what he has embarked upon. Mark’s body, mind and soul give him mixed messages about what he wants to do and Hawkes portrays this with sophistication, sensitivity and humour.
As sex surrogate worker Cheryl Cohen Greene, Helen Hunt is a sensation and gives her best performance to date. Lewin shows the audience her home life with her family away from her work to contrast who she is as professional therapist who has sex with her clients, and as a person with her own needs and concerns. Cheryl is patient and caring with Mark, while also remaining professional and firm when necessary. Away from him she is revealed to be deeply moved by his situation and aware of how his emotional vulnerability may affect her. It is a role that demanded a high level of complexity and skill, and Hunt excels.
The Sessions also benefits from a very strong supporting cast, especially Moon Bloodgood and Annika Marks who play two of the other major women in Mark’s life. Most impressive is William H Macy as Father Brendan, Mark’s friend and priest. While based on a real person who was supportive of what Mark did, there is something refreshing about a character associated with religion being portrayed in such a positive light. Brendan has moments of uncertainly about endorsing Mark’s desire to have sex outside of marriage, but they are played for laughs and ultimately Brendan has an important role in undoing some of the religious indoctrination that has previously held Mark back from experiencing life to the fullest.
The honest performances and assured direction makes The Sessions an extremely accomplished film that celebrates sexuality. It is a humanist film that treats sex as something everybody has the right to enjoy regardless of their circumstances. While The Sessions is clearly important for raising awareness of how some things that fully abled people take for granted aren’t as easy to experience by disabled people, it is also in the bigger picture a film that reclaims sexual expression. In The Sessions sex is not a commodity nor is it a purely functional act for procreation. This is a film that reminds us that sex is about people experiencing joy and pleasure by the touch of another. That a film with such a mainstream appeal can achieve this message with such ease is something to be celebrated.