The Sessions is a fictionalized account of real life writer Mark O’Brien’s foray into the sex trade—er, ahem, I mean NOT the sex trade—through the hiring of a sex surrogate with whom he can lose his virginity. The dauntingly bright, disabled Mark, played by foxy and ageless John Hawkes, finds himself in the stern yet capable “hands”—pssst, I mean “vagina”—of Cheryl (Helen Hunt), who (spoiler alert?) helps him achieve intercourse with ejaculation, after which they decide to stop their appointments. Of course there’s more to it than just that, so let shamelessly non-licensed paid sex-havers Beatrice Darling and Charlotte Shane fill you in on the rest. (And yes, it was pure passive-aggression to put this review in the “prostitution” category. Thank you for noticing!)
Beatrice: So did you like the movie?
Charlotte: Not really. I went in with high hopes because my favorite client saw it, and said it reminded him of us.
Beatrice: That I believe. Man with deep need for attachment falls head over heels for nice lady who does this all the time.
Charlotte: And she has feelings for him too!
B: NO SHE MOTHERFUCKING DOES NOT.
C: She goes through the trash to read a poem he wrote for her. She cries in her car after their last date; she was into it. Plus, she came with him, which is so unprofessional!
B: There was not one second when Helen Hunt was onscreen that I felt like she was anything other than an emotionally cool therapist. I think we were SUPPOSED to believe she fell for him, but nothing about her performance made that believable to me. Also, I think she faked that orgasm.
C: Have you read the article the movie is based on? In his essay, he seems to feel very little for her, and when they decide to stop before 6 sessions, he feels relieved because it means he won’t have to pay the money. There does not seem to be any connection at all, though he does ask if he can try to make her come. But that’s so often a male ego thing, not a truly selfless move. There’s no mention of a poem.
B: Oh, Hollywood.
C: Back to the made up stuff. So Cheryl, the emphatically NOT A PROSTITUTE character—she rubbed me the wrong way from the moment she showed up late and wasn’t apologetic. Again, unprofessional! And she makes such a fuss about how professional she is, and how her professional conduct is part of what sets her apart from prostitutes.
B: THAT is unprofessional. Showing up late, and then immediately going on the defensive.
C: And it was so uncool when she was immediately up in arms about the money being on the desk. He cannot walk. He cannot move his arms. He cannot physically hand it to you.
B: He could probably pull it out of under his pillow with his mouth?
C: Jinx! I was just about to say, it’s perfectly natural for him to have it lying somewhere as opposed to trying to pass it off by holding it in his teeth.
B: She seemed unprofessional, especially for a woman who is a “real” professional, as opposed to a call girl. I hated the way that she disrobed. I thought that she was trying too hard to be therapeutic and unsexy, and it unfortunately worked. Her demeanor lacked the warmth that any traditional therapist would provide, much less an intimacy coach. I just felt guilty and pervy watching her naked onscreen, and then she dives under the covers like, “You’re fucking welcome.” I felt kind of sorry for the guy.
C: The one thing I did like, maybe my favorite thing in the whole film, was when she tells him to tell her how he feels about her touching, and that he doesn’t “have to tolerate anything.” I might even steal that line.
B: I also liked the way that she told him that yelling wasn’t sexy when she helped him take his shirt off and he starts shouting in pain. I’ve had a ton of clients who cannot for the life of them react in a normal, calm way when they’re uncomfortable.
C: I was surprised she wasn’t more gentle with the shirt. She seemed impatient. Like a call girl who just wants to make him come so she can leave.
B: Her presence felt like a gynecologist. Like, “this is a really vulnerable moment that you are very obviously removed from.” I never got the sense that she really knew him apart from his needs, and was confused when she started showing signs of falling for him. It’s like, “He hasn’t made you LAUGH!” That’s his greatest fucking charm! No way are you wooed by him laying there being awkward because he is intimidated by your brusque demeanor.
C: I thought the humor in the film was tepid. I wasn’t laughing either.
C: Yes but I’m kind of a humor bitch.
B: I liked the guy. His jokes were corny, but they made him affable. When we left the theater, I told my friend I would love to see any other movie, with any other plot about that same character. Like about his college years.
C: One interesting aspect of what they did show but didn’t really address was that he’s so under-stimulated he orgasms very easily and in a disconnected way, like when his attendants is giving him a sponge bath and not trying to get him off. So it doesn’t take any skill to arouse him and he doesn’t seem to be enjoying it. It’s truly like a sneeze for him, like someone would just need to get him off until he felt sated from the purely physical angle, and then he could start really enjoying sex and luxuriating in another person’s sexual touch.
Maybe we should go back to Cheryl’s point about why she’s different than a hooker, which is that she doesn’t want him as a regular client and puts a limit on the number of times they can see each other. I thought it mostly held water. What about you?
B: Yes. She didn’t seem like a hooker to me, at all, not for one second. There seems to be a definite difference to me, and that her delineation makes perfect sense. I’ve known hookers who have rules about frequency of visits (no more than 2x per month, say) but to cap it at six, and to have a therapeutic goal makes it seem pretty cut and dried. I haven’t known any actual sex therapists closely, though, so I’m not sure if that’s common industry practice? (And no, I am not going to go all reporter and try to read a few sex surrogate blogs and then try and act like I know what the fuck I’m talking about, because, just no.)
C: What troubled me about the film, but only a little bit, because it’s not like I think it’s going to be Avatar-levels of national sensation, was the idea of picking right and wrong types of sex work. I think Cheryl specifically says something like “there’s nothing wrong with prostitutes” but making a distinction often implies judgment, particularly in our social climate. I wonder how many people would be okay with the idea of this situation but not okay with abled bodied men paying for sex. I bet it’s a lot.
I feel like it’s a little reminiscent of the dangers of harping on abortion being legal for women who’ve been raped when really it should be legal for everyone, raped or not. In the situation here, it’s like the tacit message is, well he’s so severely disabled, OBVIOUSLY he should be allowed to pay for it. But just some non-disabled guy? He’s not allowed to pay for it and he’s an evil criminal if he does. So many of my clients are painfully lonely, understimulated, undertouched… Being able-bodied doesn’t mean they can’t feel disconnected or long for intimacy.
B: I know a woman who IS a prostitute who just recently helped a similarly-disabled gentleman lose his virginity.
C: I’ve had disabled clients too, though no virgins that I know of.
B: Okay, yes. I can see what you mean. I guess I so rarely think about most peoples’ assumptions about sex work, because I am such a recluse and spend so little time being confronted with people who don’t get it. Watching it, from a hooker’s perspective, I kept thinking it would be better to see Mark with a prostitute, because she’d have better emotional boundaries and be warmer, and let him practice his game a little bit.
C: It seemed in the essay (much more so than the film) that the most affirming moment for him was when she kissed his chest after coming (or fake coming) because he’d had a lot of shame/anxiety around that part of his body. I think a good prostitute would have been so affirming about everything, because clearly affirmation was what he needed as much as touch.
B: They were pretty insistent on showing her positioning him inside of her, arousing him, lalala—and no condoms. Ever. At all.
C: I was so happy they didn’t use condoms. It would have been anachronistic
B: But no condoms. No lube. Which, okay, not all sex scenes have to openly show protection being utilized, but for as much as they DID show, I was involuntarily crossing my legs.
C: Yeah, because there was no foreplay and the whole thing was so unsexy. No one at that time was using condoms though. I mean Cheryl seems like the type who’s still using a diaphragm.
B: Ooh! Ooh! I have something nice to say about Cheryl! I did like the way she set boundaries at dinner with Mark, even though I am pretty sure that wasn’t the point of that scene at all. When he’s like, “if someone asked, would you say I was your boyfriend?” And she’s like, “Why not take it all the way and say husband, as long as we’re pretending?” I was just like FUCK YES! BOOM. You ARE pretending, and don’t let him forget it.
C: Thank you, I totally forgot about the lunch scene.
B: Going to lunch in the first place was terrible boundaries.
C: Yes! And as you’ve pointed out, it didn’t make any sense as a choice for her character. Why does she feel positively toward him? Is it just pity? I think I was left to assume pity at a lot of points because there was no other explanation for her motivations and it made me feel like a bad person. Especially because we see her telling him on the phone that she doesn’t usually do it. Then suddenly there she is, dressed up way nicer than she ever had for an appointment
B: I know! The fuck are you doing? This is not your fantasy, and you will not convince me it is. She’s got to have something she wants or dreams of having, but without being able to see what that might be, it’s hard to find her interest in Mark anything other than pitiful for both of them.
C: One thing I do believe, and which offers some redemption for her crying after her real/fake orgasm, is that being tender with someone even if they irritate you or have bad breath or whatever, can arouse (wink!) feelings of true fondness. And maybe her sobbing in the car can be read as a mix of things that together become overwhelming, like her ambivalence about her tenderness towards Mark coupled with pity, maybe the relief of not seeing him again, the guilt of reading the poem in spite of her husband not wanting her to and her going out to lunch with him, which her husband probably wouldn’t have liked. I don’t know.
B: Everything else about the movie is pretty standard American cinema. You don’t wonder what anyone else is thinking or feeling, ever, because it is right in your face. Cheryl was impenetrable in that way. When she gets choked up, there’s been nothing leading up to her emotional moment that would lead you to believe that she had any real feelings about it.
C: Final thought: did he or did he not have a big dick? I thought the movie wanted us to think he did, and it’s probably part of why I gullibly believed Cheryl really came.
B: I don’t think he was actually hung, or that it was even relevant. I think the idea was that he had no fucking perspective and was super anxious.
C: It’s relevant to me, given my interests! Movie directors should not be allowed to just throw in allusions to big dicks and not follow up with visual evidence. Grade: C+
B: I thought the narrative was too broad, found Cheryl too emotionally unconvincing, and thought the film suffered badly from too many irrelevant side plots, but I really loved Hawkes’ portrayal of Mark O’Brien. I give it a C-.