I’m of two minds about Ben Lewin’s The Sessions, the awards-bait-y new drama starring John Hawkes as devoutly religious poet Mark O’Brien, who spent most of his adult life breathing with the assistance of an iron lung and who, at age 38, set out to lose his virginity (with the blessing of his priest, played here in a thankless role by poor William H. Macy). On the one hand it’s refreshingly frank in its attitudes toward sex, and for a while it looks as if it wants to dispense with many of the middlebrow romantic clichés to which Hollywood and Indiewood films so often cling. On the other, it ends up capitulating to those same clichés, because it can’t find any other way to be about its subject matter—it’s trapped by its own inability to imagine a sexual narrative that isn’t shot through a gauzy filter to the sounds of tinkling piano music. Devoutly religious audience members need not worry about being affronted by the film’s premise, because by the end any potential for subversion has been neatly contained. It’s a fundamentally safe film that only thinks it's being risqué and forward-thinking.
Or maybe, in its own quiet way, it is more forward-thinking than it seems. The film opens with Mark, who longs to experience sexual pleasure with a woman before he reaches his “expiration date,” arranging a series of sessions with a sex therapist named Cheryl Cohen-Greene. (She’s played by Helen Hunt in a lovely, naturalistic performance that’s bound to get the attention of those handing out awards at the end of the year.) We’re made privy to each of these sessions in all their awkwardness and poignancy, as Cheryl and Mark move slowly from above-the-belt strokes and caresses to oral and vaginal intercourse. In allowing us to see the intensity with which Mark yearns for sexual knowledge—even if he has to seek out a stranger in order to attain it, thus going outside the bounds of romantic love, marriage, and the church—the film makes a powerful case for the importance of sex as a facet of one’s own self-expression, as something that one does for oneself. Though Mark also desires romantic love, his quest to lose his virginity is initially presented as a means to its own end. It’s rare in mainstream (read: sex-phobic) American culture to see sexual pleasure for its own sake get taken this seriously, let alone defended. For that small miracle we should be grateful.
At the same time, the film isn’t bold enough to really look its subject matter in the face, as it were. Like Cheryl, its attitudes toward the act of sex itself vacillate between a kind of brisk efficiency and moody placidity. Sex is presented as either a physiological exercise or a form of spiritual meditation. (There's also some psychoanalytic stuff thrown in there, too, as Cheryl—weirdly—encourages Mark to use sex as a way of working through his childhood guilt regarding the death of his sister.) The film is uncomfortable with the notion of representing sex as something irrational, complex, dark, confusing, painful, unruly, ecstatic, or fun. As we see it here, it functions as a slightly more intimate form of therapeutic massage. The truly great films about sex (Last Tango in Paris, In the Realm of the Senses, Y Tu Mama Tambien, etc.) are fervent, sensuous, a little unhinged, even scary in the feverishness of their passion. They are, in a word, erotic. The Sessions is about as erotic as a doctor’s appointment.