Film | Nathaniel Rogers | Oscars

Movies: 'The Sessions', Sex Positive and Charming

"Shall we get undressed?" Helen Hunt tutors John Hawkes in the body in THE SESSIONS



When Madonna's "Sex" book turned twenty last week, a common thread of blog coverage was 'tame by today's standards' and I wondered which new standards other people were living by that I wasn't privy to? I'm not talking about private culture -- people have been seeing strangers naked long before Grindr or easily clickable pornography -- but about mainstream entertainment. Which mainstream female celebrity has been running around aggressively in her birthday suit lately? We've hardly made great strides at accepting female sexuality since then. Proof positive: the current political debates. The male body has, on the other hand, become more commonly objectified two decades on but penis sightings are still as rare as they were in the "Sex" book and people continue to make a big flaccid point of being shocked whenever they're visually reminded of their existence... especially in the movies. Find even one article about Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Eastern Promises or Shame that doesn't mention Jason Jr,  Viggo Jr. or The Fassmember; tough assignment. 

This longwinded preface isn't as off-topic as it sounds for a review of THE SESSIONS. The sexually-minded lightly funny new drama stars Oscar nominee John Hawkes (Winter's Bone) as Mark O'Brien, a paralyzed man who dreams of losing his virginity from the discomfort of his iron lung. Once his empathetic liberal priest (William H Macy) suggests that Jesus wouldn't object, "in my heart I think he'll give you a free pass on this one," O'Brien hires a sex surrogate named Cheryl (MIA Oscar winner Helen Hunt) to deflower him. The set up is like one of those raunchy teen sex comedies where everyone's end game is to "do it." Minus the frantic physical comedy -- iron lungs not being naturally inclined toward slapstick.



A closer film relative, given the sweetly funny older protagonist and the non-traditional beauty who rescues him from himself might be The 40 Year Old Virgin. O'Brien doesn't leap from his bed for an orgasmic end credits dance to "The Age of Aquarius" like that other middle aged beginner but sex does, finally, make his spirit soar. The point is this: it's quite a small family of sex-positive movies for adults out there. (The Sessions is based on a true story so one hopes O'Brien thanked God regularly that he wasn't raised Mormon or Orthodox Anything because the Free Pass sure is handy!)

Sessions-noprostituteHawkes, in a pleasing about face from the quietly menacing men of Winter's Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene is all warm twinkly-eyed verbosity. O'Brien's mind and voice are the only real path to communication so he isn't shy about using them. But it's Helen Hunt, surprisingly, who emerges as the key to the picture's success in its most difficult role. The ease at which Cheryl strips has to be fully acted, unless Hunt has been a secretly thwarted exhibitionist all along. But it's not just Cheryl's body but her mind and soul that Hunt let's us see. We go home with her at night after the titular sessions (which each concentrate on a specific topic like 'body sensations', 'simultaneous orgasm', etc.) and begin to get a sense of her own complicated boundaries with her husband, her clients, and herself. Her husband calls her "a saint" but he's not so comfortable with her emotional intimacy with O'Brien. To Hunt's credit, neither is Cheryl as comfortable as she'd like to be.

Despite its charm, sex positivity, and finely honed star turns, The Sessions is something of a limited experience, only skimming the surfaces when it needs to dig deep. And it still has its own traditional hangups about intimacy and naked bodies. In one scene late in the movie that was surely intended to be more of an emotional knockout, Cheryl holds up a mirror carefully at just the right angle for the twisted O'Brien to really look at his naked body for the first time. He looks but we don't see. That's a strange choice given that the whole movie is leading him to the fullness of sexual expression and Cheryl's naked body has never been coyly hidden from our view. 

The MPAA who gave us the now practically meaningless system of PGs, PG-13s, Rs, and NC-17s has worked hard to eradicate sexuality from American cinema while allowing violence to flourish. They've been largely successful. That moral watchdog's overt preference for violence is a sad indictment of America given that sex can be pleasureable and healthy while violence is only ever destructive. Sex is a more universal experience, too, but you'd never know it from the movies. Human sexuality is the single biggest topic that's almost never truly addressed in movie theaters. (Kissing scenes that fade to black and three second dissolve montages of heads thrown back in ecstacy don't count either). In my heart, I know I'm giving The Sessions something of a free pass but I'm just so glad it exists.


Nathaniel Rogers would live in the movie theater but for the poor internet reception. He blogs daily at the Film Experience. Follow him on Twitter @nathanielr.

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  1. "The Sessions" is one of the best films I've seen in a long time. The inherently interesting story is moving, and it is presented with humor and charm without being cloying. And the story is brought to life by many wonderful peformances, especially the leads. John Hawkes is almost unrecognizable playing a role much different than anything I've seen him in. Helen Hunt gives a relaxed, naturalistic performance. (Until now, I've never been a big fan of hers because I'd found her acting overly mannered.)
    I read somewhere that the director wanted to show Hawkes's penis but only if he could show it erect. But in doing so, he knew the film would get an NC-17 rating, limiting its audience and advertising possibilities. Yes, senseless violence is okay but naked sexuality is obscene: it's totally fc'ked up.

    Posted by: Michaelj | Oct 28, 2012 1:15:34 PM

  2. It's a really lovely movie, and the three leads are teriffic. Don't miss it.

    Posted by: David Ehrenstein | Oct 28, 2012 1:49:48 PM

  3. Is it just me, or does Helen Hunt bear a startling resemblance to Laurel Holloman in that first photo?

    Posted by: Jerry | Oct 28, 2012 1:59:53 PM

  4. I'll see this movie because I always do what DAVID says.

    Posted by: UFFDA | Oct 28, 2012 2:34:22 PM

  5. I'm surprised there's no mention here of Cloud Atlas, which has a gay relationship that's kinda shocking in how matter-of-fact it's shown. Being gay is completely tangential to the plot; it's quite refreshing.

    Posted by: endo | Oct 28, 2012 3:52:16 PM

  6. Yawn - yet another breeder comedy. Aren't we exposed to enough of these already? Hollywood - that great marketing unit for heterosexuality - has churned out enough of these over the years. I think I'll pass.

    As for Madonna's Sex book, puh-lease, give me a break. It was porn. There's nothing good about porn. Porn degrades and demeans. For Pete's sake, if we in the GLBT community are going to tie our progress to one of Madonna's marketing exercises, we really are in trouble.

    Posted by: jason | Oct 28, 2012 5:54:37 PM

  7. "I read somewhere that the director wanted to show Hawkes's penis but only if he could show it erect. But in doing so, he knew the film would get an NC-17 rating..."

    @MichaelJ: It's rated R, so I assume that means he gave into the whims of the church-ladies at the MPAA?
    I've never understood how this twisted "conservative" notion (that violence is a better model for kids than being comfortable with seeing someone doing something appropriately without clothes) manages to trump all logic at the MPAA.

    Posted by: GregV | Oct 28, 2012 6:25:49 PM

  8. I read the entire piece thinking maybe there's a gay aspect. Zip, zilch, nada. Then I had to check to make sure I hadn't been directed to rotten tomatoes.

    As someone pointed out, it would have been nice to read about the gay aspect in Cloud Atlas. I am at a blog with "homosexual tendencies". Guess it was too much it would have tended to talk about the major Hollywood recent release with homosexual aspects.

    Sure blow me about how everything isn't gay 24/7 but I can assure you no other site, with heterosexual tendencies, will even come close to discussing that aspect of Cloud Atlas.

    Btw, this is my favorite web site. I come here way more than I go to Facebook. Just trying to say its frustrating reading a few paragraphs wondering if some Hollywood movie might have a gay aspect. Fortunately I found out about one from the comments here. Guess that's all I will hear about it. And again, I am just saying this because IMHO my favorite website might be better.

    Posted by: Michael | Oct 28, 2012 9:29:06 PM

  9. Shame on you Helen, great movie, but the photoshopping in the film scene captures is way too obvious. If you don't believe me, check her recent appearance on Chelsea Lately.
    Wow. Helen you don't need to photoshop, just be yourself.

    Posted by: BrokebackBob | Oct 29, 2012 2:21:25 AM

  10. CLOUD ATLAS sucks. I know because I've seen it. There is no need to talk about that piece of garbage just because there's gay character in it, or because one of the directors is transgender. At least THE SESSIONS has a plat that pushes boundaries and is also well acted with a story that has depth.

    CLOUD ATLAS has... make-up. Boring.

    Posted by: Joe De Hoyos | Oct 30, 2012 1:10:21 AM

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