18 – 24 January; DCA
Most of us take sex for granted but, as demonstrated by Judd Apatow’s The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005), if you’ve never had sex it can seem like the biggest deal in the world, the pressure and expectation bearing down on you the older you get without having a sexual experience. Sex becomes an unattainable idea, idealised to such an extent that there is no way it can live up to your elevated expectations. This is partially the subject matter of The Sessions, which tells the real-life story of Mark O’ Brien, a man afflicted with weakened lungs and muscles that have left him almost entirely debilitated from the neck down. Trapped in an iron lung for most of his days, he can escape only for a few hours at a time, depending on his mood and general health. As he whiles away the time concocting poetry in his head, thirty-seven year old Mark (John Hawkes) daydreams of love and, predominantly, the sex that he might never have. Resolving to put an end to his sexual inexperience, Mark hires a “sex surrogate”, played brilliantly by Helen Hunt, to sleep with him and guide him through the sexual pitfalls and confidence issues that he experiences. Throughout this process, Mark airs doubts over his course of action with his sympathetic and earnest Catholic priest (William H. Macy), as well as trying to come to terms with his illness and the inevitable premature death that illness will bring.
While the story itself may seem like an exercise in morbidity, the end result is a film whose warmth, wit, and character renders a potentially unpalatable subject matter with humour and sensitivity. The central characters in Mark’s plight are each played with the necessary level of charm. William H. Macy steals every scene he is in, subverting as he does the usual prudish or sanctimonious attitudes of the Catholic Church. Helen Hunt plays her role as the sex surrogate with sensitivity, balancing family life with the necessary ambiguities and moral indecisiveness that her role requires, while still maintaining a sweet air towards Mark during the inevitable sexual awkwardness of the titular “sessions”.
Although the strengths of The Sessions lies in its actors and its unusual premise, these strengths are rarely made visible in the other elements of the film. While The Sessions remains a perfectly watchable film due to its likeable cast, it is also hobbled by limp jokes concerning sexuality that feel at odds with the warmth that the rest of the film emanates. This flaw is coupled with an almost profoundly flat and dull directorial style that occasionally moves into the realms of the low-budget TV movie, as though Channel Five’s afternoon matinee slot managed to somehow get an A-List cast on board. Director Ben Lewin’s relative inexperience with making a feature film shows as he reverts to hackneyed directorial moves, such as switching to garishly-lit soft-focus shots to illustrate a flashback. This often leaves the film’s narrative and also its overall tone feeling slipshod and, especially as The Sessions reaches its denouement, underdeveloped.
Despite a messy plot that sometimes feels more sketched-out than fully developed, and weak attempts at humour, it is a difficult not to find The Sessions likeable. When more intimate moments are portrayed and the characters are given free-rein to perform, there is an earnest attempt to reflect on the pressures of sexuality in the modern world. At a point in time when “real” sexuality is curiously suppressed in contemporary Hollywood films, the honesty of a film like The Sessions is refreshing enough to overcome its other flaws.