The Sessions 3/4 – a movie review by James Berardinelli
Back toward the beginning of her career, a then- 29 year old Helen Hunt appeared in a movie called The Waterdance. The film dealt frankly with the way disability impacted the sexual relationship between her character and the one played by Eric Stoltz. The sex scenes were raw, graphic, and unsentimental. Now, 20 years later, Hunt finds herself in similar territory. In The Sessions, she plays a sex surrogate – a therapist who helps a profoundly disabled man to achieve orgasm through penetration. Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) is a victim of polio – his skin retains full sensation but his muscles are useless. He cannot voluntarily move anything below his neck and he must spend most of his day in an iron lung. At age 38, he is a virgin and, concerned that his “sell by” date is approaching, he is determined to alleviate the condition. Enter Cheryl (Hunt), the sex surrogate. As in The Waterdance, the sex scenes are raw, graphic, and unsentimental. And, although the films have different goals and travel paths that are not always similar, they are in many ways spiritual cousins.
The Sessions is rare (at least for an American production) for the open, matter-of-fact way in which it explores sexual matters. Writer/director Ben Lewin does not approach the subject as if it’s a taboo; disabled people are just as sexual as non-disabled people – something often forgotten in the rush to marginalize them. Sex is, after all, one of the basic drives of the human animal; The Sessions treats it as such – nothing more, nothing less. When Helen Hunt undresses, it’s done casually. The camera does not seek to eroticize the moment; there is no big “reveal.” Likewise, no attempt is made to hide body parts via intentionally obfuscating camera angles to provide the illusion of privacy. Characters also discuss sex frankly – another aspect of The Sessions that sets it apart from common mainstream fare.
View the trailer…