In the past 12 months, I’ve seen two independent films that dealt explicitly and graphically with sex.
The first was “Shame,” a torturous movie where Michael Fassbender played a sex-addict and we, the audience, were given a front-row seat to the emotional devastation the physical act of love can have on people’s lives.
Out now is “The Sessions,” which I feel in a lot of ways is a thematic bookend of “Shame.”
“The Sessions” depicts sex as tender, hopeful, and empowering, still emotionally messy to-be-sure, but ultimately life-affirming.
This is the story of real-life journalist Mark O’Brien, a man paralyzed from the neck down because of a childhood bout of polio.
Mark is played by John Hawkes, a brilliant character actor who has made a career of playing grubby rednecks and lowlife criminals. Spending the entire film confined to a gurney, Hawkes delivers a performance that is so earnest, funny, and natural that a best-actor Oscar nomination is a surefire lock.
An artist hasn’t done this great of work while entirely on his back since Michelangelo took on the Sistine Chapel.
Set in the late 1980s, Mark lives a fairly independent life, although most of his time is spent inside of an iron lung. He is helped around town by several caregivers; most notable is Vera (Moon Bloodgood), a no-nonsense grad student who takes him to his various appointments.
One day, Mark gets assigned a story about the sex lives of the physically disabled and it is during the interviews that he learns about sex surrogates.
A professional sex surrogate is a person who has sex with a physically disabled client in order to help that person learn how to overcome his or her handicap in the bedroom and go on to have a fulfilling love life.
Mark has remained a virgin well into middle age and feels that his own issues with his body have prevented him from successfully perusing physically intimate relationships.
Mark also happens to be a devout Catholic, so he takes his ethical dilemma about sex surrogates to his local priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy). Fortunately, Father Brendan is a long-haired, free-wheelin’ man of the cloth and gives Mark the go-ahead, figuring that due to his unique situation the Lord will give him a pass on any sinning that might occur during a session with a surrogate.
The two become fast friends and Father Brendan remains Mark’s confidant throughout the entire process.
It is at the first session where Mark nervously meets his surrogate Cheryl (Helen Hunt). She is warm but clinical, a married mother of a teenaged son who sees her work as therapeutic and necessary.
Relegated to only six meetings, Mark and Cheryl’s sessions run the emotional gambit from tense to comedic to loving to joyous to heartbreaking.
I’m usually not a huge fan of Hunt’s, but this is the best performance of her career. It’s easy to praise her as daring for taking on a role that requires her to be completely naked and engaging in various sex acts for large swaths of the film, but I was much more impressed with the emotional journey she takes her character on.
While not as sure-fire a pick as Hawkes, it’s hard to see how Hunt doesn’t get a best-supporting actress Oscar nod herself.
I think what most surprised me about “The Sessions” is that if not for the nudity and frank depictions of sex, this movie would be rated PG. It is very sweet and heartfelt, but never cloying or overly sentimental.
Going back to “Shame,” both movies depict sex as a tool. It’s up to everyone to decide if they are going to use this most intimate of human interactions as a tool to destroy or a tool to build. “The Sessions” makes a wonderful case for its power to build.
“The Sessions” is rated R for strong sexuality including graphic nudity and frank dialogue.