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Film / The Sessions

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The Sessions is a 2012 drama film written and directed by Ben Lewin and starring John Hawkes and Helen Hunt. Based on the article "On Seeing a Sex Surrogate", Hawkes plays Mark O'Brien, a poet who has been largely incapacitated since a bout of polio when he was six. After a disastrous interaction with one of his helpers, he is commissioned to write an article about sex and the disabled, and thereby meets sex therapist Cheryl Cohen-Greene, played by Hunt. He consults with his parish priest, Father Brendan, portrayed by William H. Macy, and ultimately decides that he wants to lose his virginity before he dies.


This film exhibits the following tropes:

  • Anachronistic Soundtrack: "This Too Shall Pass" by OK Go, which came out in 2010, was heavily featured in trailers for the film, despite the fact that most of the story takes place in the 80s.
  • An Aesop: It's important to love yourself Just the Way You Are.
  • Artists Are Attractive: Cheryl develops feelings for Mark after he writes love poetry for her.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The last scene in the film shows Cheryl attending Mark's funeral several years after the main events. Also doubles as a Curtain Call for most of the named characters.
  • The Body Parts That Must Not Be Named: Strongly averted, leading to lines like this:
    Cheryl: I'm gonna rub the tip of your penis around my vulva, and when it's ready, I'll guide you in.
  • Bourgeois Bohemian: Cheryl and her husband both appear to be this; they are resolutely middle class but Cheryl firmly believes that Sex Is Good and often wears hippie-inspired clothing, while her husband apparently spends most of his time playing the guitar and thinking about philosophy.
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  • Cannot Talk to Women: Averted; at the start of the film this is pretty much all that Mark can do with them.
  • Captain Obvious: This conversation during the Jewish conversion ritual, when Cheryl takes her clothes off for the umpteenth time:
    Bathhouse attendant: I see you're very comfortable being naked.
    Cheryl: It's never been one of my problems.
  • Cringe Comedy: Happens a lot during the actual sessions, largely because of Mark's condition and inexperience.
  • Cool Older Guy: Father Brendan is very accepting and supportive of Mark's decisions throughout the movie.
  • Deadpan Snarker:
    • Mark only has his words to interact with the world, and he makes the most of them. He also has no trouble using his handicap as the subject of a joke.
    • Vera, Mark's handler, has elements of this.
  • Dramatization: Mark, Cheryl, and Susan were all real people and the events of the movie happened in similar, if not identical, ways.
  • The '80s: The setting, but the only things that really give it away are the cars and some of the technology.
  • Fetish: According to Cheryl's therapy notes, Mark is into masochism.
  • Florence Nightingale Effect: Mark falls for three of the five women in his life who are involved in his medical care.
  • Freakiness Shame: Mark has this.
  • The Grunting Orgasm: Consistently for Mark.
  • Inconvenient Attraction: Cheryl and Mark develop romantic feelings for one another, knowing that they can never be in a relationship.
  • Inspirationally Disadvantaged: Mark faces this in his life, with the media making a big point of him successfully graduating from college and becoming a writer.
  • Jizzed in My Pants: Before Cheryl, this was the closest that Mark got to sex, often unintentionally with his helpers when they were bathing him. With Cheryl, he fires off too early several times before he gains enough experience to not orgasm at a touch.
  • Love Hurts: Mark falls for Amanda, one of his carers, and awkwardly proposes marriage to her. To his dismay, she freaks out and abandons him. She returns at the end of the movie, though, and both she and Mark admit that they could have handled the situation better.
  • Not in My Contract: Cheryl makes it very clear that she is not a prostitute, though she has nothing against them.
    Cheryl: So the difference between me and a prostitute is a prostitute wants your return business—I don't. I'm here to help you learn about your sexual feelings so that you can share them with a future partner.
  • Oh, Crap!:
    • Mark, when the power goes out in his house, as he knows he can only survive for a few hours without his iron lung.
    • Cheryl gets a scare when Mark's failed attempt at cunnilingus leads to him choking.
  • OOC Is Serious Business: Cheryl, who for most of the film is friendly and enthusiastic, breaks down crying in her car after her last session with Mark, revealing the full extent of her feelings for him.
  • Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: Sometimes Cheryl sounds like she's from Boston; other times she just sounds like Helen Hunt.
  • Oscar Bait: It's an inspiring, bittersweet dramedy, based on a true story about a disabled person, starring an actor who physically manipulated his body to play his character and an actress who spent much of her time onscreen fully nude. For all of these reasons, the movie was widely tipped to be a key contender in the following year's Oscars. However, in the end only Hunt was recognized for her work, receiving a nomination for Best Supporting Actress and ultimately losing out to Anne Hathaway.
  • Professional Sex Ed: This is Cheryl's job, as it was in real life.
  • Naked People Are Funny: One scene starts with a close-up of Cheryl's wincing face as muffled sounds are heard in the background. Cut to the wide angle shot and we see Cheryl kneeling, naked, over Mark's face (which is invisible) as he struggles to perform oral sex on her. It's Played for Laughs.
  • Race Against the Clock: Part of Mark's reasoning for working with Cheryl is that he figures he doesn't have much longer left to live. Actually, Mark still had around a decade of life ahead of him at the time the film is set.
  • Raised Catholic: Both Mark and Cheryl, although Cheryl has abandoned the church and converts to Judaism at the end of the movie.
  • Scenery Censor: During the sex scenes, Mark is basically always covered by a sheet (or by Cheryl, for whom this trope is very strongly averted).
  • Sex Is Evil, and I Am Horny: Mark's Catholic upbringing, as well as the difficulties of his condition, leave him leery of giving into his sexual desires. It is up to Cheryl to convince him that Sex Is Good.
  • Shameless Fanservice Girl: Played with. Cheryl is very open about her body but this is not because she doesn't care about societal norms about sexuality. Rather, it's because she thinks those norms are harmful.
  • Skinny Dipping: Cheryl's conversion to Judaism requires her to submerge herself naked in a cleansing mikvah bath.
  • Speed Sex: Between his inexperience, his lack of muscular control, and his sex therapist being a very beautiful and sensual woman, Mark climaxes far too early almost every time. While he gets better, he only gives Cheryl an orgasm once and never reaches his goal of simultaneous orgasm.
  • Teeny Weenie: Inverted; due to his lack of anatomical knowledge, and some dubious sex manuals, Mark is legitimately worried that his is too big. Later comments by Cheryl imply that he actually is quite well-endowed.
  • Tiny Guy, Huge Girl: Averted in Real Life, as John Hawkes is actually a couple of inches taller than Helen Hunt, but it can seem this way in the film as Mark is extremely frail and basically only seen from the waist up. Played straight for the actual Mark O'Brien, who was under five feet tall due to his condition.


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