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Review: 'The Sessions'

William H. Macy as Father Brendan in "The Sessions."
Fox Searchlight PIctures
William H. Macy as Father Brendan in "The Sessions."
THE SESSIONS - Official Trailer (2012)

Iron lung-bound writer, Mark O'Brien, rediscovers and redefines his sexuality in a film based on his true story, "The Sessions" (opens November 2 in select San Diego theaters).

Warning: This review contains explicit language.

"The Sessions" has several very apparent and striking aspects. But beyond the focus on a severely disabled main character and intense sexual scenes is a refreshing tone and narration. Mark O'Brien's writing is candid and cheeky, much like the film itself. This isn't surprising as the story is very closely based on Mark's personal account of the experience, "on seeing a sex surrogate."

The first scenes of the film whiz by, reviewing Mark's life leading up to his surrogacy plans. He's graduating, then he's in love with a new caretaker, then she's gone, all very quickly. But it's worth it to spend the necessary time later during his therapy sessions, which need to be taken slowly and delicately.

Mark (played by John Hawkes) is a religious man who grew up in a Catholic family. He attends church often, mostly to offer confession -- not as much sin confessing as thought mulling. And while at this odd turning point in life, to either follow persistently doled advice to seek help for his lack of sexuality or to remain a bodily unaware man, he turns to his spiritual adviser, Father Brendan (William H. Macy). Some of the funniest moments in the film are between Father Brendan and Mark discussing his sexual performance before saint statues and praying church members. Father Brendan is among the few people Mark is close to.

"The Sessions" portrays sex unconventional to the silver screen (which more often than not is two 20-somethings unrealistically rolling off beds and smashing into walls). This sex, however, is presented and discussed very bluntly. It all feels very real. There is no secrecy about what happens during Mark's therapy sessions with professional sex surrogate, Cheryl (Helen Hunt). If Mark ejaculates prematurely, we know it. If he's in pain, we see it. When he asks Cheryl if she climaxed, it isn't implied through facial expressions or hints. He clearly asks, "did you come?".

Even the camera asks for no interpretations or guesses from the audience. We follow Mark's face in most scenes, as the only part of his body that moves. And during the therapy sessions Cheryl undresses right in front of us, unassumingly, and we see everything. Nothing needs to be hidden. Caressing, grabbing, climbing to position, and climaxing -- it's all there. (Oddly enough, Cheryl's first undressing with no build up or special attention immediately reminded me of "District 9" when we first see aliens in their encampment. One minute we see normal and unsurprising people, the next, a shocking and often misunderstood figure is plainly before us.)

Helen Hunt and John Hawkes as Cheryl and Mark during sex therapy in, "The Sessions."
Fox Searchlight PIctures
Helen Hunt and John Hawkes as Cheryl and Mark during sex therapy in, "The Sessions."

After successful landmarks in his sexual quest, such as his first intentional ejaculation, or full vaginal penetration of Cheryl, O'Brien reminiscing, grins widely and says he feels cleansed and victorious. A persistent theme in the film is the religious and parental restraint on his sexuality. This is what he needs to be cleansed of -- 38 years of sexual suppression. The expectations of God and his parents are often about his thoughts. He is cleansed of their hold through the physical and emotional release of sex. In the initial stages of his therapy, Mark feels as though God is cursing him by his premature ejaculations.

While having severe polio can hinder one's sex life, O'Brien's psychological issues about intimacy and sexuality are also common in non-disabled people, as noted by his therapists.

The subject of disability and sexuality is made familiar and accessible through Mark's apt narration, sharp humor, and the director's candid presentation of the subject. Some audience members laughed out of awkwardness at serious moments. When people feel awkward, they laugh; and real sex can be awkward. But more often than not, Hawkes' timing and tone are perfect for O'Brien's clever words. And Cheryl's genuine warmth provides assurance in the less stable beginnings of their sessions.

Beyond the uncommon topic at hand, this film is profound in how it reveals what it means to be human with physical limitations. Mark can only voluntarily move his mouth, face and neck, and is otherwise strapped to a flat gurney or his iron lung. But he is the character we grow closest to. And we get the unique chance to experience him intimately -- his mastery of words, his charm, wit, and candor.

"The Sessions" is rated R for strong sexuality including graphic nudity and frank dialogue.

Companion Viewing: Transamerica (2005), another film that deals with an unconventional sexual quest in a frank and relatable way.

This site has a comparable list of films focused on disability, or have disabled main characters.

Nathan John is a former KPBS News Assistant and just couldn't stay away so now he is a guest blogger for Cinema Junkie.