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‘The Sessions’ dishes out a new take on sex, love

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In the recent past, Hollywood has been unable to churn out any movies about sex other than shallow and forgettable comedies. “The Sessions,” directed by Ben Lewin, takes a refreshing look at the subject through the eyes of Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), a poet who has polio and seeks to lose his virginity at the ripe old age of 38.

He consults the services of sex surrogate Cheryl (Helen Hunt) and the two attempt to help Mark overcome his past demons and achieve his sexual goals in six sessions.

Hawkes and Hunt deliver strong performances, nailing the moments of awkwardness as well as the more tender scenes. But the film is hugely enhanced due to the performances of supporting actors William H. Macy and Moon Bloodgood, who play a priest and Mark’s therapist, respectively. They manage to provide excellent comic relief by the way they react to Mark’s frustrations about how the sessions are going.

What makes “The Sessions” stand out is how brutally honest it is, while delving into topics that aren’t really spoken about openly like masturbation and exploring parts of the human body. The discussions that Mark has with Cheryl about these matters are intricate, but lead to a much more serious theme about the way sex affects relationships, and how people’s religion can affect the way they view it.

Mark, who was raised Catholic, believes that his body deserves to be punished by never experiencing intercourse. Cheryl, on the other hand, was also raised Catholic, but she has an outlook on sex different from the Catholic Church’s teachings, and she enjoys it.

Mark’s therapist and Cheryl are very patient with Mark during his moments of weaknesses, but they’re able to make him stronger by being firm and not letting his disability affect the way they do their job.

Mark comes to the conclusion that losing his virginity is not what makes a man, but rather it’s the relationships he manages to form during his lifetime.

Because Hawkes is unable to act through body language, his performance is especially noteworthy because we can only see his face. The rest of him is either strapped into an iron lung when he’s at home or into a portable ventilator when he’s out and about. Mainly using switches in the tone of his voice, Hawkes is able to express many different emotions.

The biggest weakness of the film is the way it handles the ending, which drags along unnecessarily and gets to be frivolously melodramatic. It just doesn’t fit with the rest of the film, which is much more character-driven, instead of relying on time jumps and soundtrack escalations.

Overall, “The Sessions” is worth a watch if you’re looking for a light-hearted film with internal meaning, as long as you’re willing to look for it, of course. It’s not a film that will stick with you for its plot, but it will make you wonder about your own opinions about sex and love and the role it plays in our lives.

Ayush Kumar can be reached at ayush@student.umass.edu.

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