Helen Hunt’s nude scenes in Ben Lewin’s The Sessions (2012) were predictably the focus of media attention upon the film’s US release. Such sensationalism is the stuff of PR’s dreams, and although it’s easy to be cynical when a summer blockbusters turns the same tricks, you can’t begrudge indies with eccentric subject matters for playing the press game and raising their profile. Based on the article On Seeing a Sex Surrogate by journalist Mark O’Brien, The Sessions follows the tale of O’Brien’s (John Hawkes) journey of sexual discovery and in particular, his relationship with sex surrogate Cheryl (Hunt).
Though it may sound like an unofficial sequel to The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005), rest assured that there’s a twist to the tale. Mark is paralysed from the neck down due to a childhood bout of polio, and spends most of his days hooked up to an iron lung, writing poems with a pencil in his teeth. Throw in Cheryl – married to oafish husband Josh (Adam Arkin) – and a quirky priest (William H. Macy) who hears Mark’s confessions, and you have all the requisite ingredients for an amusing and occasionally moving US sex comedy.
Although both leads have already won a raft of minor awards for their performances, it’s Hunt, rather than Hawkes who got the Oscar nomination this time around. Unfortunately, in truth, Hawkes’ commitment to a difficult role is the only one deserving of major accolades. That’s not to say that Hunt isn’t on fine form as Cheryl – she just isn’t exceptional. Sadly, it seems that the only thing the industry likes better than a comeback is a respected, middle-aged actress taking the ‘brave’ decision to disrobe on camera.
The sheer power of Hawkes’ charisma and his theological discussions with Macy’s perplexed padre keep you thoroughly entertained for the first hour, but after Mark and Cheryl consummate their relationship the script takes a creative nosedive. Their private passion just isn’t given enough time to burn, so it’s difficult to invest any emotion in their relationship and the last act feels rushed and clumsy. Though Lewin’s The Sessions might not quite live up to some of its hype, there’s more than enough here to put a smile on your face.