(real spoilers ahead in the last paragraph)
The Sessions is an exceptional movie not just because of its subject matter but also because of the way it deals with it. The story of Mark O’Brien, who has to live in an iron lung and is paralyzed from his neck down, is treated with the most respect you can imagine, but also with humor. Most importantly, it treats sex as a totally normal thing without embarrassment or ridicule, which I consider one of the greatest achievement of this movie. The story is touching but never goes for drama, the writing is subtle and the acting simply amazing. That John Hawkes is not a name everyone knows still amazes me, as he shines in every role he plays (his role in Me, You and Everyone We Know was revelation to me). Here, he is just perfect and still very different from many other characters he has played. The Sessions is just a very good-natured and effective movie.
The most prominent aspect of The Sessions are certainly the sex scenes, or to be more precise, the way the movie deals with sex. The movie is about sex, since Mark O’Brien decides to want to have sex, although it would seem to be an impossible thing. Father Brendan (William H. Macy, good because not in his usual style, showing his talent even more) accepts this desire and this paves the way for how the movie portrays sex – something natural and good, without shame or taboo. The scenes with Mark’s “sex surrogate” Cheryl (Helen Hunt, who is really really good) are the heart of the movie. Not because they’re romantic (there’s something about that too, but more on that below), but because they are open about sex. Nudity is not a big deal and although Mark is nervous and excited about her nudity, the movie isn’t. It’s a very bold move but it pays off.
Still, there are moments when Hawkes’ hips are just about covered with the bed sheet and there never is the same discretion for Hunt. We see her full frontal several times and Hawkes never. The director explained (in an interview with Jeff Goldsmith) that there was no intention in this, but I don’t believe it. There’s this extreme fear of showing penises (just look at the awe about Ben Affleck’s barely noticeable penis shot in Gone Girl) and the movie, as open and carefree it is about sex, shies away from that. It’s the only disappointing moment in the movie, not because it is important to show him completely naked, but because there is no reason not to.
One aspect of O’Brien’s story is his desire to find love. I wrote many times about that desire in our culture (mostly when it comes to love songs) and we can see how he longs so much for it because he has been taught that it’s the most important goal, that it will complete him, especially with his disability. So he falls in love with every pretty or nice woman he meets and projects his unfulfilled desires on them. But when tells Amanda (Annika Marks), her happy smile falls and she just leaves, realizing she can’t give him what he wants. When he gets to know Cheryl, we expect the same thing to happen and it does for him. The surprise is that she falls in love with him, too. She is married, seemingly happy, there are no fights and although there is some routine, she and Josh (Adam Arkin) seem to get along. But she falls in love with Mark and it’s very interesting to see what that does to her and everyone else. It’s an unlikely love because on the page, her husband is perfect while Mark isn’t. The circumstances are extremely complicated, she is in a professional relationship to him, she is married, his time is probably limited. But they still fall in love and then, because of the circumstances, decide to break it off. It is very sad to see and the reasons are mainly societal. Cheryl could leave her husband, but that wouldn’t be expected. Because of the unlikeliness of their love, it’s one of the most tragic moments I’ve seen in a while and it makes all those romantic comedies ring even more false than they are already. They only deal with ideal romance and always avoid the complications. Here, the complications are always in the center and the romance never feels forced. They are not “meant for each other,” they simply fall in love and can’t help it. We need more movies that show love like this and maybe more that encourage us to accept this or any kind of love.