The Sessions

4.5 stars out of five
by S. James Wegg
Publish Date: December 31, 2012
Confessions of love

One way or another, most human beings experience at least one meaningful sexual experience with another person during their time on the planet. For countless millions, the heady excitement and magical feelings of two naked bodies becoming one randy then passionate whole wears off rather quickly with the preferred mate only to find occasional re-expression when tasting forbidden flesh outside the sanctified union. Precious few—and lucky they—are those who manage to keep the spark in their bed (or kitchen, or elevator…) throughout a lifetime—making love and having sex ought never to slip off anyone’s to-do list.

After contracting polio at an early age, 36-year-old Mark O’Brien (nothing short of a superb performance by John Hawkes) finally decides to get it on with at least one woman before his best-before date reaches its last midnight. Quietly cheered on by his easy-going priest (veteran William Macy slips on the collar with commendable ease), Mark begins his quest for willing, full penetration even though his disease has withered most of his muscles but left his not inconsiderable penis (we learn—as is so often the case the male sex organ remains under the sheets while the female form is revealed in all of its considerable beauty: perhaps a wee injustice to the otherwise refreshingly honest treatment of the poet whose existence is dependent on an iron lung) in tip-top shape.

After a thoughtful prelude replete with a range of caregivers (Moon Bloodgood is quietly efficient as Vera; too-rough-by-half Joan is readily convincing in Rusty Schwimmer’s care; early flame Amanda comes into her own when Annika Marks returns to the set for an encore adieu), it’s only when surrogate sex therapist Cheryl (courageously and lovingly crafted by Helen Hunt) begins their time-limited sessions that director/writer Ben Lewin’s film, er, comes into its own.

Naturally, the question of therapist vs. prostitute works its way into the narrative: superficially both purveyors of human kindness offer the same services for cash yet the former is thought to be a cut above streetwalkers and—apparently—has no pimps to grab a piece of the action. Still, there’s a marvellous scene in John Palmer’s Sugar where a male hustler services an enormously obese client with a bedside manner that all therapists might only hope to aspire (cross-reference below). In Cheryl’s case, she’s happily married (Adam Arkin who sounds the film’s only false note by intercepting a love poem: hardly the act of an all-seeing, stay-at-home philosopher; Jarrod Bailey plays the stereotypical teen son) and readily able to distance herself from her needy bedmates.

The actual sessions move engagingly from premature conclusions to mutual satisfaction (providing motel clerk Mong Lo a beyond-the-cred line of “What’s that?” while trying to pick up Vera as she patiently waits in the motel lobby for her boss to achieve the current goal of simultaneous orgasm). With each carnal encounter, viewers are drawn closer to the principals in compelling fashion. Marco Beltrami’s string quartet laden original score is at one with the actors’ plucky determination and romantically infused “afters.”

The real-life homage concludes as the debilitating disease completes its awful work, but all thinking viewers will come away with a better understanding as to how the seemingly different amongst us are really just the one-in-the-same when getting up close and personal. JWR

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