Sex is featured prominently in The Sessions. You have a beautiful naked woman, and the film revolves around a man deciding to lose his virginity. However, the subject of deflowering is neither salacious nor played for laughs. Instead, The Sessions tackles in a respectful, even perhaps restrained manner, the subject of sex, love, and faith that keeps things from veering either into farce or into exhibitionism. Instead, we do something in The Sessions we are not asked to do in many films where sex is involved: actually think about both the morality and emotions behind the immediate physical pleasure sex entails. It's an adult film for thinking adults.
Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes) is a poet and journalist who has overcome great obstacles. As a young man, he was struck with polio, leaving him immobile and unable to breathe without an iron lung. Despite this, he is able to have a flourishing career. The one thing he hasn't had is genuine love and sexual intimacy. The stirrings of passion have not been erased or diminished due to his illness. On the contrary, Mark finds himself attracted to women emotionally and sexually. Still, he isn't married and a man in an iron lung isn't likely to hit the single's bars anytime soon. Complicating matters is O'Brien's devout Catholicism, which declares fornication (that's all sex outside marriage to us heathens and heretics) a sin. However, with a blessing from his happy/hippie priest Father Brendan (William H. Macy) he goes in search of love/sex.
That comes in the way of a sex surrogate, Cheryl (Helen Hunt), whom Mark has discovered via an article on sex & the disabled he's been commissioned to write. Cheryl is a highly trained expert in helping people deal with sexual issues/dysfunctions that include some sexual activity, but she is not a prostitute. As Cheryl explains, a prostitute wants to continue seeing clients and deals strictly with sexual intercourse. Cheryl limits herself to six sessions (hence the title) and is there more to help her clients overcome issues than just have sex with them. It includes such things as fondling and comfort with one's body (all things Mark will need help with). At first, a friend of Mark's opens up her home for these sessions, but a double booking forces them to seek a local motel for their final few sessions.
Aiding them in this is Mark' attendant Vera (Moon Bloodgood).
Eventually, Mark does indeed lose his virginity, but he also gains a deeper understanding of what love can be as well as its limitations. A health crisis late in The Sessions brings Susan (Robin Weigert) into his life. Susan would remain at Mark's side until his death, for it is at the end of The Sessions that we find that Mark has basically been narrating his story from beyond the grave.
The Sessions is simply a brilliant film. There are two major aspects that elevate The Sessions to greatness: those in front of the camera, those behind it. Let's turn to the first part. John Hawkes gives a simply astonishing performance as Mark O'Brien. It is not just the physicality (or lack thereof) that Hawkes has with O'Brien. However, that can't be dismissed: Hawkes only has his head and face to which to work with, and he has on concentrate solely on his eyes to express joy, love, loss of it, and anxiety. Hawkes also uses his voice: one that is both innocent and wise as to his predicament. Normally, I'm not a fan of voice-overs, but in The Sessions they are limited and do not come in to comment on what we've seen. Instead, we just use them to explore O'Brien's inner thoughts, so when we get that "twist" of discovering O'Brien was dead, it does come as a genuine shock.
The Sessions is a pure and simple showcase for John Hawkes, who gives the performance of the year.
We can't ignore Helen Hunt, who equally dived into her character. Now, I wasn't crazy over her Massachusetts accent (Boston I believe), and after As Good as It Gets I don't think Hunt can handle accents. However, her Cheryl keeps a steady balance: there is nothing salacious with what she does but there is neither boredom in her routine. As a sex surrogate, one imagines she's had sex with several people, but this is not routine. Instead, Cheryl shows genuine warmth and compassion in this unique situation.
I'd argue only Macy, as the slightly flustered but generally cheerful priest, had the worst of it. He just appeared to be there as a sounding board, coming in with pithy responses to O'Brien's questions of keeping to doctrine while exploring the pleasures of the flesh. It wasn't a terrible performance, but not a brilliant one either.
The second aspect, the work behind the camera, all works beautifully. Writer/director Ben Lewin, adapting O'Brien's article On Seeing A Sex Surrogate, lets the story tell itself with O'Brien as our guide. Lewin did many intelligent things: he didn't ridicule O'Brien's faith (painting Catholicism as a block to getting some), he treated the situation with maturity (neither turning the sex sessions into a joke or into a seedy series of encounters), and kept a balance between finding lightness in a man with particular difficulties discovering pleasures most of us know long before he does and the seriousness to which O'Brien and Cheryl treat the situation.
Lewin's screenplay does what so few do: it finds an authentic voice and doesn't deviate from it. The Sessions is told mostly in O'Brien's viewpoint, and as such we see that in O'Brien's mind, the desire for sex isn't just to see what it feels like. Instead, it is to discover what it is to love physically as well as emotionally. Mark is a loving individual, and now he wishes to know a woman in the Biblical sense.
Curiously, there is a responsible, even respectful and holy aspect in The Sessions. At one point, Cheryl shows Mark his nude body via a mirror. "This is your body," she tells him. It's a beautiful and moving moment, but a good Catholic like O'Brien might have made the connection with when the Host is presented to the congregation in a Catholic Mass; a priest holds the bread up and reminds us that Christ used a similar phrase, "This is my body." The mixing of the physical and the spiritual is there if you see it (which I did, though I cannot say for certain Lewn had that in mind).
Another excellent aspect is Marco Beltrami's score, which is gentle and beautiful without calling attention to itself.
If I were to make any criticism, it would be that having that last-minute health crisis (which I trust did happen) or having Cheryl find herself with feelings for Mark (which might have happened) appears to be something that one would expect a film to have. On those points, I won't argue they ruin The Sessions. However, the relationship between Cheryl and her husband Josh (Adam Arkin) as well as Cheryl's conversion to Judaism seem to just be there and aren't explored as perhaps they might have. A deeper segway into them might have distracted from the overall story, but their appearance there doesn't seem to add much.
Still, these are minor points. The Sessions is about sex, but it isn't played for laughs. Instead, it shows the thinking and spiritual exploration someone in unique circumstances goes through before deciding to explore sex. The Sessions does what few films do: it treats sex with maturity and intelligence.