The Sessions

Nov 26, 2012

You'll not see a more sexual film this year.

The Sessions
Grade: A-
Director: Ben Lewin (Paperback Romance)
Screenplay: Lewin (based on the article by Mark O’Brien, “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate”)
Cast: John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone), Helen Hunt (Then She Found Me)
Rating: R
Runtime: 95 min.
by John DeSando

"I'm reaching my best-if-used-by date.” Mark (John Hawkes)

The sense of humor in this quote reveals “The Sessions” as one of the most sexual movies ever made and one of the least sexy movies ever made. The contradiction is the heart of this romantic drama in which a poetic man, Mark (Hawkes), is imprisoned in body only within an iron lung.  Polio is his challenge, love is his goal. Based on the article by Mark O’Brien, “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate,” this film is one of the best this year, anchored by the stellar performances of its principals, Hawkes and Helen Hunt.

Physical love, as the quote implies, turns into spiritual love in the person of sexual surrogate Cheryl (Hunt).  It’s not difficult to guess that the two will grow to love each other beyond the sex that she masterfully introduces him to; what is surprising, however, is the universal quality that makes the lung almost a bit player in the drama of people finding each other and growing in ways they never imagined. 

For all her nudity and their explicit discussion, nothing matches the lyrical beauty of these two souls connecting in a state that builds on physical intimacy and ends in ecstasy of a Platonic high order. The film turns on the meaning of love in its best form through the medium of a man more impeded than most men watching the film. His difficulty responding well for their first “sessions” is emblematic to many men for whom the act of intercourse is a mysterious and challenging enterprise, from fear of inadequacy to questions about the act’s meaning and importance.

As Mark’s love grows like ripening fruit, and not just for Cheryl, so too does the understanding that sex can be the introduction to a magic place to be entered only by the pure of heart.  Even Mark’s priest-confidante, Father Brendan (William H. Macy), is moved by Mark’s story, which seems to affirm for the priest the primacy of true emotion as exemplified by Christ.

John Hawkes, in a role much softer than his rude characters in Winter’s Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene, should garner another Oscar nomination while Helen should be in line to match her Oscar for As Good As It Gets. In any case, the actors make the difference between a high-class soap and a solid classic story about love and sex.

The Sessions will affirm what you may have only suspected—sex is the humble servant of true love.  At no time in the film is the sexual therapy ever anything but poetic and, most of all, honest.  Helen Hunt can look with pride at her exquisite nakedness, which serves, like baptism, to display the purity and innocence into which we all are born—after that we need our private “sessions” with ourselves to sort out the impure and embrace the sublime.

You’ll not see a sexier movie ever if you realize there is something more than our popular culture offers about sex. Without the melodramatic denouement, this film is as good as you will get.

“I believe in a God with a sense of humor. I would find it absolutely intolerable not to be to able blame someone for all this.” Mark 

John DeSando co-hosts WCBE 90.5’s It’s Movie Time and Cinema Classics, which can be heard streaming and on-demand at
He also appears on Fox TV 28’s Man Panel and Idol Chatter.
Contact him at