The Sessions (Lewin, 2012)

The same thing that makes The Sessions better than expected is what makes it naggingly incomplete: it takes sex seriously.

Judging strictly from the ill-conceived trailers, viewers might expect the film to be a sex farce about how shy and bashful Mark (John Hawkes) is about sexuality and how forward and uninhibited is his surrogate (Helen Hunt). The film itself is actually a more somber reflection on the role that sexuality plays in our lives and how we prefer not to think about the ramifications of our moral judgments when they are applied to those whose lives are dramatically different from our own.

Mark is portrayed as a devout-enough-to-say-confession Roman Catholic who seeks advice from the new priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy) about whether or not God could forgive him for wanting to have a sex life the only way (he thinks) he possibly can. Father Brendan first avers that God will give Mark “a pass” and then later goes so far as to say Mark is doing a “great thing.” What makes it a great thing isn’t clear. The implication is, perhaps, that Mark refuses to go gentle into that good night, refuses to accept a life with less than the full range of human experience despite his disability, refuses to cater indefinitely to his fears and insecurities.

One can rationalize away a moral objection to sex outside of marriage, but it is odd to hear that dismissal in the mouth of a priest. The emotional entanglements the proceed from Mark utilizing Cheryl’s services are somewhat predictable, and they call into question the foundational assumptions of Father Brendan’s claims that Mark’s use of a surrogate is a great thing about which God will be without reservations. It is also somewhat odd that the emotional entanglements are presented as being singular and surprising. Cheryl’s control and expertise in the bedroom is contrasted by her frustration and inability to be able to create intimacy and connection in her own marriage. Mark accepts Cheryl’s definition of her services and framing of their relationship as professional but almost immediately and predictably begins the transference process.

The Sessions is getting lots of strong Oscar buzz, mostly for the acting, which is fine. The story, though avoiding the biggest potential potholes of the material never moves to a self-reflective stage. Living is better than dying. Loving yourself is better than hating yourself. The costs of the emotional entanglements are shown but never questioned. It’s a little too self-congratulatory.

That said, it sets out to be a feel good story, and it succeeds at making the audience feel good.

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