Film Review: The Sessions

With Helen Hunt, John Hawkes, and William H. Macey Director: Ben Lewin
Reviewed by Ann Deering

The film The Sessions (2012) is the story of Mark a writer who, since an attack of polio at the age of six, is confined to an iron lung for all but four hours a day and who wants to have sex with a woman. Because he is being cared for around the clock by people who have his best interests at heart we get a glimpse of what at first seems impossible: finding a way to give Mark what he asked for. William Macey plays Fr. Brendan, a catholic priest, who fully supports Mark, bringing himself into doubt and confusion. Helen Hunt plays the part of Cheryl, a married woman with a husband and a child who works as a surrogate sexual partner. We see how, when all judgement is suspended and all notions of right and wrong are put aside, all three meet each other in honesty and care. Cheryl in acts full of tenderness, Brendan in a deeply human response and Mark in his ability to name his deepest desires truthfully. A triad, which is supportive, loving, and life affirming, thus allowing Mark freedom to explore aspects of himself which were hidden heretofore.

Mark, played masterfully by John Hawkes, is so full of vitality, imagination and hope for himself and is free of all imposed expectations, cultural, parental, and his own. In fact no one expects anything from him, his life depends totally on others and their ability to care for him. We saw Fr. Brendan’s own struggle, caught in the rules and limitations that priesthood often brings, beautifully portrayed by William Macey. Cheryl in her utter certainty of who she was and why she was working with Mark was film at its very best. She brought sentiment without sentimentality and ease with her own body, which was unique.

There were six sessions. The initial attempts to lie side by side and be comfortable were hard to watch. I recall feeling uneasy such was the power of this film. It was a breath of fresh air to be shown again that sexuality without love but with kindness and compassion can release more than just the feeling of adulthood, but the deeper feelings related to respect, tenderness and contentment. Mark was able to have a full sexual relationship and was able to move on with his life. The graceful manner in the performances of Helen Hunt, William Macey and John Hawkes, and the dignity of all who surrounded Mark, exploded the assumption that only a perfectly functioning body is capable of sexual intercourse. I was deeply moved by this film and it continues to prompt me to ask all the old questions of myself. The place of physical intimacy in the life of a person, especially if the person suffers from a disability, the feelings of unease which often accompany the deepest feelings, the notion that expectations can suppress or express, the awareness that many boundaries still exist to sexual expression in our own culture. This film holds up a mirror to us all, just as Cheryl held up the mirror to Mark and said: “Now look at yourself, this is how you look”.