This review was originally published in my column at Towleroad...
When Madonna's "Sex" book turned twenty last week, a common thread of blog coverage was 'tame by today's standards' and I wondered which new standards other people were living by that I wasn't privy to? I'm not talking about private culture -- people have been seeing strangers naked long before Grindr or easily clickable pornography -- but about mainstream entertainment. Which mainstream female celebrity has been running around aggressively in her birthday suit lately? We've hardly made great strides at accepting female sexuality since then. Proof positive: the current political debates. The male body has, on the other hand, become more commonly objectified two decades on but penis sightings are still as rare as they were in the "Sex" book and people continue to make a big flaccid point of being shocked whenever they're visually reminded of their existence... especially in the movies. Find even one article about Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Eastern Promises or Shame that doesn't mention Jason Jr, Viggo Jr. or The Fassmember; tough assignment.
This longwinded preface isn't as off-topic as it sounds for a review of THE SESSIONS. The sexually-minded lightly funny new drama stars Oscar nominee John Hawkes (Winter's Bone) as Mark O'Brien, a paralyzed man who dreams of losing his virginity from the discomfort of his iron lung.
Once his empathetic liberal priest (William H Macy) suggests that Jesus wouldn't object, "in my heart I think he'll give you a free pass on this one," O'Brien hires a sex surrogate named Cheryl (MIA Oscar winner Helen Hunt) to deflower him. The set up is like one of those raunchy teen sex comedies where everyone's end game is to "do it." Minus the frantic physical comedy -- iron lungs not being naturally inclined toward slapstick.
A closer film relative, given the sweetly funny older protagonist and the non-traditional beauty who rescues him from himself might be The 40 Year Old Virgin. O'Brien doesn't leap from his bed for an orgasmic end credits dance to "The Age of Aquarius" like that other middle aged beginner but sex does, finally, make his spirit soar. The point is this: it's quite a small family of sex-positive movies for adults out there. (The Sessions is based on a true story so one hopes O'Brien thanked God regularly that he wasn't raised Mormon or Orthodox Anything because the Free Pass sure is handy!)
Hawkes, in a pleasing about face from the quietly menacing men of Winter's Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene is all warm twinkly-eyed verbosity. O'Brien's mind and voice are the only real path to communication so he isn't shy about using them. But it's Helen Hunt, surprisingly, who emerges as the key to the picture's success in its most difficult role. The ease at which Cheryl strips has to be fully acted, unless Hunt has been a secretly thwarted exhibitionist all along. But it's not just Cheryl's body but her mind and soul that Hunt let's us see. We go home with her at night after the titular sessions (which each concentrate on a specific topic like 'body sensations', 'simultaneous orgasm', etc.) and begin to get a sense of her own complicated boundaries with her husband, her clients, and herself. Her husband calls her "a saint" but he's not so comfortable with her emotional intimacy with O'Brien. To Hunt's credit, neither is Cheryl as comfortable as she'd like to be.
Despite its charm, sex positivity, and finely honed star turns, The Sessions is something of a limited experience, only skimming the surfaces when it needs to dig deep. And it still has its own traditional hangups about intimacy and naked bodies. In one scene late in the movie that was surely intended to be more of an emotional knockout, Cheryl holds up a mirror carefully at just the right angle for the twisted O'Brien to really look at his naked body for the first time. He looks but we don't see. That's a strange choice given that the whole movie is leading him to the fullness of sexual expression and Cheryl's naked body has never been coyly hidden from our view.
The MPAA who gave us the now practically meaningless system of PGs, PG-13s, Rs, and NC-17s has worked hard to eradicate sexuality from American cinema while allowing violence to flourish. They've been largely successful. That moral watchdog's overt preference for violence is a sad indictment of America given that sex can be pleasureable and healthy while violence is only ever destructive. Sex is a more universal experience, too, but you'd never know it from the movies. Human sexuality is the single biggest topic that's almost never truly addressed in movie theaters. (Kissing scenes that fade to black and three second dissolve montages of heads thrown back in ecstacy don't count either). In my heart, I know I'm giving The Sessions something of a free pass but I'm just so glad it exists.
Oscar Dreams: Great shots at Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor and Supporting Actress (though Helen Hunt is obviously a Lead, so there's still time to change campaigns). Best Picture will be a much tougher sell... but if the actor's branch really loves it?