The Sessions (Fox Searchlight Pictures, R)

film the-sessions_75It’s hard to imagine the producers had anything but little gold men on their minds when they gave this the green light.


film the-sessions_500

I’ve been following the career of John Hawkes for a few years now, and couldn’t be happier that he’s becoming as successful as he is. He’s always turned in reliable supporting performances of all stripes (my first couple memories of noticing him as a standout are as the love interest in Me & You & Everyone We Know, as Sol Star in the TV Western Deadwood, and the straight man older brother to Danny McBride’s Kenny Powers on Eastbound & Down). It was his much-deserved Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his unusually menacing work in 2010’s Winter’s Bone that really opened the door for him, though, and he followed it up with a similar (and similarly excellent) turn in 2011’s Martha Marcy May Marlene. Now he has a lead role in the Oscar-baiting The Sessions, which has been gathering a building snowball of buzz since its premiere at Sundance this past January.

The Sessions is based on the true story of Mark O’Brien who, at 36 years old, lived in an iron lung, was a practicing Catholic, and had never had sex. He had feeling in his body, but was unable to move much of anything aside from his head, and barely that, and could only manage outside of the iron lung for a few hours each day. These unusual circumstances led to him employing the services of a sex surrogate to take his virginity from him, but only after getting the blessing of his priest (here played by William H. Macy, who you are required to always like in everything).

It’s been a couple of months since I first saw The Sessions, and I left it underwhelmed and unimpressed. Since then, I’ve read some compelling arguments in favor of the film—about how it is very moving and positive, and manages to not judge its characters or make fun of them, and it treats the loss of virginity unlike maybe any other single film that’s come before it—which all ring true. Still, I have some problems with the film. First of all, in its own weird way, it does feel like the dreaded intentional Oscar-bait film. When you cast an up-and-coming actor like Hawkes in a showy role (the Academy loves disabilities) and Helen Hunt, a previous Best Actress winner as the surrogate who guides him on a difficult journey, it’s hard to imagine the producers had anything but little gold men on their minds when they gave this the green light. Does that make it a bad film? Not by any means. But it’s always been a pet peeve of mine when it appears that producers are trying to purchase Oscars, and although the subject matter here seems unlikely, that’s exactly how this film came off all the same.

Another random pet peeve (that probably a lot of my regular readers wish I would just shut up about already) is that this movie is yet another example in the constant Hollywood double standard in male vs. female nudity. You see Helen Hunt very naked—I’m just waiting for people to pipe up with how “brave” it was for her to do at age 48, but the fact is she’s gorgeous and when you look like her, I doubt bravery is required—but every time Hawkes’ O’Brien is naked he’s coyly covered up, including in a scene where Hunt’s Cheryl holds up a full-length mirror to O’Brien’s naked body in long shot. I’m not arguing that this film should have included more graphic sex scenes; I think that end was very well-handled indeed. But in a film as frank and positive about sex as The Sessions otherwise is, would it kill them to show a naked man in addition to the woman, instead of carefully and contrivedly hiding him all the time?

Beyond those two complaints, I wonder how many people will see this film and leave it unclear as to what exactly a sex surrogate is. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, this movie won’t help clear it up for you very well. On that note, let me recommend a much better, though dated, film about a sex surrogate, Kirby Dick’s 1985 documentary Private Practices: The Story of a Sex Surrogate, which will leave you with a much clearer idea of what it is that sex surrogates do, how they come to relate with their clients, and how it affects their personal lives. | Pete Timmermann

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