In “The Sessions,” John Hawkes plays Mark O’Brien, a 38-year-old polio survivor living out his life in an iron lung who decides it’s finally time to lose his virginity. To accomplish this, Mark seeks the services of a sexual surrogate, Helen Hunt’s Cheryl Cohen-Greene, a type of therapist who engages in sex with those whose physical or mental disabilities make intercourse otherwise difficult. (Don’t worry, you’re not alone in having never heard of such a vocation; I didn’t know it existed before seeing this film, either.)
The story, based on the experiences of a real Berkeley, Calif. writer in the 1980s, is rife with opportunities to explore human sexuality–especially when repressed, as one would expect it to be for a 38-year-old virgin–but writer/director Ben Lewin (himself a polio survivor) seizes few of them. “The Sessions” is structured as a crowd-pleaser whose primary narrative intent is to cheer Mark on in his pursuit to finally get laid, which ends up an entirely predictable, anticlimactic undertaking. After getting the go-ahead from his hippyish priest (William H. Macy), Mark finds Cheryl and, within a few sessions, the stick is in the hole.
Thus, “The Sessions” plays a lot like Judd Apatow’s “The 40-Year-Old Virgin”–with Mark’s iron lung standing in for Steve Carrell’s emotional immaturity and Macy’s priest for Carrell’s stoner friends–but without any of the dramatic struggle or socially relevant comedy. (The film is unexpectedly lighthearted, but its gags are broader than Apatow’s sharpest material.) Not only is filmmaker Lewin’s employment of the unique, mildly shocking premise ultimately a gimmick to sell a movie with sitcom-level storytelling, he also fails to make the resulting sitcom superficially entertaining by staging the payoff far too early.
Because Mark is deflowered before the hour-mark, Lewin uses the second half to stage other conventional conflicts. Mark naturally develops romantic love for Cheryl in their final sessions, which she could not reciprocate even if she were single, given the standards of her profession. The question that emerges is: Now that Mark has a little sexual experience under his belt, will he have the confidence to pursue a woman under real-world circumstances? (He is able to leave the iron lung for short periods.) There’s a sprinkling of interesting commentary here on the male mind’s perception of the relationship between sex and romance, but the film’s primary function remains cheerleading Mark.
The big saving grace of “The Sessions” is the lead performance. Hawkes’ work finds the perfect balance between self-loathing and curiosity for life, making the character believable in such a way that he never becomes a pity-object for the viewer. This attitude represents the key distinction between “The Sessions” and offensive ‘disabled pictures’ like 2001’s “I Am Sam” and 2003’s “Radio,” which forced the audience to feel bad for their protagonists — and it’s all thanks to Hawkes, whose work feels actively at odds with Lewin’s behind-the-camera attempts to trivialize the material. Hawkes has consistently delivered in small roles, like the cult leader in last year’s “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” but this film will finally earn him the attention he deserves, which may actually justify its otherwise mediocre existence.
Hunt and an unrecognizable Moon Bloodgood (playing Mark’s caregiver) also hit authentic notes, chipping away at the script’s artifice. The former actress’ work gains levity as it moves, because it takes a little while for the viewer to accept her frank nudity as an honest depiction of Cheryl’s lack of inhibition rather than a transparent play for golden statuettes. If “The Sessions” as a whole had shown the human sensibility that its players do, then it could have been both poignant and insightful about sexuality; unfortunately, the film settles for a few exciting elements in a humdrum package.