by Jeff Beck, Guest Film Critic
“The Sessions” begins by introducing us to its main character, Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), a 38-year-old man who has had polio for nearly his entire life, which causes him only to be able to move his head. Most of his time is spent in an iron lung, a machine that breathes for him, and one which he can only leave for a few hours at a time. However, these limitations have not stopped him from trying to lead a productive life. He’s gone to college, earned a degree, and with the help of an assistant, he goes outside, goes shopping, and does other various activities.

After deciding to get rid of one of his current caregivers, he hires Amanda (Annika Marks), whom he just happens to fall in love with. However, when he tries to express these feelings, she doesn’t reciprocate, and decides to leave. This causes Mark to have to find another assistant, leading him to hire Vera (Moon Bloodgood). His experience with his previous caregiver seems to have awoken some desire in him, as now he suddenly has the urge to lose his virginity.  

With the help of an acquaintance, it’s decided that the best way to go about this would be for him to see a sex surrogate, Cheryl (Helen Hunt), or, as she’s also called, a sex therapist. Their sessions start off a bit awkward, but as they spend more time together, both of them soon realize that this may be becoming something more than a simple doctor-patient relationship.

“The Sessions” is a strange movie that has a few things going for it, while there are also a few major things holding it back. Looking on the positive side as to what the film has to offer, it can easily be said that the film has a great sense of humor. You may not think that this situation would call for it, or have that much in it, but the film is surprisingly funny throughout. As you can probably guess, some of the humor is a bit lowbrow and yes, it involves sex. There’s a bit of a running gag in the early sessions where Mark is a bit “over-excited” when Cheryl starts to touch him, but for the most part, the humor works very well.

Much of the humor comes right from the performances, particularly that of William H. Macy, who plays a priest that Mark becomes good friends with. Mark begins seeing him near the beginning of the film, seeking approval to go about trying to lose his virginity with a sex surrogate. After a little thought, the priest delivers the great line “God will give you a pass on this one.” Macy’s character is one of those “movie priests” that you can find in several films. He smokes, drinks, and is willing to stretch the boundaries of what is considered sinful behavior.

You also have Hawkes’ well-done performance as O’Brien. Hawkes is a recent breakout star, who really started gaining notice with his role in “Winter’s Bone,” a performance that earned him an Oscar nomination. Given the fact that his character can only move his head, almost all of his work in this film is vocal, which is where Hawkes has to do his best to make an impact. The most interesting part of his performance is watching the change in his character as he goes on this sexual odyssey. The same can be said of Hunt’s character, as she too goes through an interesting transformation from being professional to having real feelings for him.

All that being said, we now come to the parts of the film that were holding it back. Earlier in this review, I referred to this as a “strange” movie, not because it’s weird, but because it’s kind of an odd topic to make a movie about. However, a story like this could indeed be an interesting one if told well, but there is where the main problem of the film lies: It’s not told particularly well. Even though the film runs a brief 90 minutes, it ends up feeling like it’s rather dragged out.

This is a story in which we’re supposed to be fully engaged with the characters, but unfortunately, that doesn’t really end up happening because the story itself isn’t particularly engaging. The screenplay is constructed in such a way so that we are always at a distance from these characters, never really giving us much reason to care whether Mark succeeds with his quest or not, or whether they end up becoming a couple or not.

The humor and the performances do end up taking it quite a long way, but you begin to realize that, without those elements being present, there wouldn’t be much to this film at all. I don’t know about you, but I like to be given a reason to care about the characters that are falling in love, which we don’t get with these brief sessions. There are touching moments to be found, but they lose most of their impact because of these issues.

Taking the good with the bad, this isn’t a terrible movie, though it is being rather overhyped. I found myself laughing a lot and enjoying the transformations the actors go through, but an unengaging story only serves to drag it down. It should be noted that this is based on a true story. Mark O’Brien was indeed a real person who really felt passion for these people in his life. Shouldn’t the film reflect those feelings? 2.5/4 stars.