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Film / The Sessions

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The Sessions is a 2012 comedy-drama film written and directed by Ben Lewin and starring John Hawkes and Helen Hunt. The movie is based on the article "On Seeing a Sex Surrogate". Hawkes plays Mark O'Brien, a Berkeley-based poet and writer who has been largely incapacitated following a bout of polio at the age of 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. Hunt was nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the 2013 Academy Awards for her performance in the film.

This film exhibits the following tropes:

  • The '80s: Most of the movie takes place in 1988.
  • Advertised Extra: Rhea Perlman, who plays the assistant helping Cheryl convert to Judaism, gets a prominent billing in the opening credits, even though she appears in exactly one scene, for less than a minute of screen time.
  • Almost Out of Oxygen: Mark can only spend a few hours at a time outside of his iron lung, as he's too physically weak to breathe on his own for any longer than that.
  • An Aesop:
    • Sex can be weird, awkward, and embarrassing, but that's okay—what ultimately matters most is that those involved are open about their needs and desires, and that they treat one another with acceptance, kindness and respect. Or, more simply: so long as it's Safe, Sane, and Consensual, then Sex Is Good.
    • It's important to love and care for your body just the way it is.
  • Artistic License: The movie is based on true events, but a substantial proportion of what's shown onscreen is fictional. For instance many of the supporting characters are made up, and the romantic undertones to Cheryl and Mark's relationship weren't present in reality. Cheryl's personal life is also significantly altered: she was a mother to two children, rather than having one son as depicted in the film, and she had converted to Judaism around two decades prior to meeting Mark.
  • Big Prick, Big Problems: Mark becomes worried that his penis will be too large to fit inside Cheryl, which results in his having a panic attack when they attempt intercourse for the first time. Downplayed in that it's unclear just how much his fretting was justified, since his appendage is never shown onscreen (although Cheryl later describes it as "handsome and substantial").
  • The Body Parts That Must Not Be Named: Averted. In keeping with her line of work and her generally uninhibited personality, Cheryl definitely isn't shy about discussing sex organs.
    Cheryl: I'm gonna rub the tip of your penis around my vulva, and when it's ready, I'll guide you in.
  • Bury Your Disabled: Mark does end up finding true love with Susan, but dies young, as he always assumed he would. The movie's Bittersweet Ending shows Cheryl attending his funeral around ten years after their sessions together.
  • Cannot Talk to Women: Inverted; at the start of the film this is pretty much all that Mark can do with them.
  • Commonality Connection: Mark and Cheryl have both moved to Berkeley from Massachusetts, and both come from Catholic backgrounds.
  • The Confidant: Father Brendan gives Mark the go-ahead to have sex, patiently listens to even his horniest and most embarrassing confessions, and tries his best to offer him helpful advice.
  • Crying After Sex: Averted, but Mark admits in voiceover that he was so happy to have successfully had sex with Cheryl that he “almost wept.”
  • Cupid's Arrow: Cheryl and Mark start to develop romantic feelings for one another, despite knowing that they can never be in a relationship.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Mark's unapologetically blunt caretaker Vera.
  • Desperately Craves Affection: Mark seems to fall head-over-heels for basically any attractive woman who is nice to him. Given his condition, it's fairly understandable.
  • Disabled 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.
  • Eiffel Tower Effect: A shot of the Golden Gate Bridge visually signposts the fact that the film takes place in the San Francisco Bay Area.
  • Expository Hairstyle Change: Cheryl’s hair is naturally wavy for most of the movie, but it’s straightened in the final scene at Mark’s funeral.
  • Fetish:
  • Freakiness Shame: Mark has this.
  • Good Adultery, Bad Adultery: Good. Although Cheryl is technically cheating on her husband—from a physical perspective at least—every time she takes on a new client, her ultimate goal is to help people become more comfortable with their sexuality.
  • Good Shepherd: Father Brendan is a benevolent Catholic priest who truly wants to help Mark reconcile his faith with his Quest for Sex.
  • The Grunting Orgasm: Consistently for Mark, and usually accompanied by expletives as well.
    Mark: Oh, god—damn! Shit...
  • Hairy Woman: Subverted. Despite her obvious Granola Girl credentials (and the fact that the movie is set in The '80s), Cheryl turns out to be very, uh...neatly-trimmed down there.
  • Idealized Sex: Deliberately averted and deconstructed. The movie showcases the mechanics of sex, warts and all, with Mark's disability regularly leading to situations which are awkward and sometimes downright cringeworthy.
  • Innocently Insensitive:
    • Mark runs into this due to his erroneously thinking of Cheryl as a Hooker with a Heart of Gold. When they meet for the first time, he immediately commits a faux-pas by pointing out that "your money's on the dresser." Luckily, Cheryl doesn't hold it against him, and is willing to explain to him (and the audience) what separates her job from The Oldest Profession.
      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 you can share them with a future partner.
    • The clerk at the motel where Mark and Cheryl have their final two sessions asks Mark's carer Vera some fairly inappropriate questions about Mark and his disability, and later hits on her in a harmless but unsubtle manner.
  • 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 develops a crush on Amanda, an attractive young woman working as one of his caretakers, and awkwardly proposes marriage to her. To his dismay, she's extremely unnerved and winds up abandoning him. She returns at the end of the movie, though, and both she and Mark admit that they could have handled the situation better. Eventually, she's one of the attendees at his funeral.
  • Ms. Fanservice:
    • Cheryl manages to both subvert and exaggerate the trope at the same time. On the one hand, she's a wholesome Girl Next Door type who doesn't really play up her sexiness despite her line of work. On the other hand, she spends most of her time onscreen completely naked, to the point where it's no exaggeration to say that Helen Hunt does more nudity in this one movie than most American actresses do in their entire careers.
      Mikvah lady: I see you're very comfortable being naked.
      Cheryl: It's never been one of my problems.
    • Amanda is seen taking a bath with her boyfriend, and one of Mark's Imagine Spots has him envision her as a scantily-clad pole dancer.
  • Must Not Die a Virgin: Part of Mark's reasoning for working with Cheryl is that he figures he doesn't have much longer left to live.
  • Naked People Are Funny: Cheryl and Mark's third session begins with a close-up on Cheryl's rather pained-looking face accompanied by the sound of muffled grunts coming from offscreen. Cut to the Reveal Shot: a full rear view of a butt-naked Cheryl kneeling over Mark's head as he struggles to perform oral sex on her. It's startlingly explicit (on Cheryl's part, at least) and played for Cringe Comedy, particularly when, to Cheryl's horror, Mark announces that he's choking.
  • New-Age Retro Hippie: Long-haired Father Brendan is a devoutly Catholic variant on this trope.
  • Nice Gal: Cheryl is a warmhearted, selfless and extremely open-minded woman who genuinely wants the best for her clients.
  • Nobody Poops: Averted. Cheryl goes to the bathroom to pee midway through one of the sessions.
  • Oh, Crap!: Mark, when the power goes out in his house, as he knows he can't survive long without his iron lung.
  • Oscar Bait: An inspirational, bittersweet dramedy, based on a true story about a disabled person, starring a respected character actor in a demanding and physically transformative performance, and a former Best Actress winner going full-frontal in her late forties. For all of these reasons, the movie was widely tipped to be a major contender at the 2013 Academy Awards, but it wound up only getting nominated for one Oscar, which it didn't win.
  • Performance Anxiety: Mark, big time. He's extremely nervous before his first session, and many of the difficulties he experiences trying to have sex with Cheryl have as much—if not more—to do with his various neuroses as they do his actual physical disability.
  • Post-Coital Collapse: Cheryl does this the one time Mark actually manages to give her an orgasm.
  • Raging Stiffie: Happens to Mark quite often, despite his best efforts to control himself.
  • Romantic False Lead: Mark and Cheryl are this for one another. In fact, they agree to end at four sessions instead of the planned six because they can see that they are developing an emotional attraction to one another, which is a major professional no-no for Cheryl in particular. After the sessions are over, Mark begins an actual long-term relationship with a woman named Susan Fernbach, while Cheryl stays with her husband.
  • Saintly Church: As represented by Father Brendan, the Catholic church gets a largely positive depiction. Judaism is also shown in a favorable light.
  • Scenery Censor: During the sex scenes, Mark is always covered up in some way, often with a Modesty Bedsheet. Other times, Cheryl—for whom this trope is very strongly averted—becomes his scenery censor when she straddles him.
  • Serial Romeo: Invoked and Played for Laughs.
    Mark: Boy, am I glad to see you.
    Cheryl: (smiling) Don't you say that to all the girls?
    Mark: Yes, but I always mean it.
  • 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 otherwise.
    Mark: My penis speaks to me, Father Brendan.
  • Sex Is Interesting: The whole movie revolves around the topic of sex.
  • Shiksa Goddess: Cheryl comes from a Christian background but is married to a Jewish man. At his urging, she eventually converts.
  • Speed Sex: Between his inexperience, his lack of muscular control, and his sexual surrogate 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.
  • Talking in Bed: Cheryl and Mark do this on multiple occasions. Their conversations become more revealing and emotionally vulnerable as time goes on.
  • Tender Tears: Cheryl breaks down crying in her car after her final session with Mark, revealing the extent to which her feelings for him have developed.
  • Thanks for the Mammary: At the beginning of their first session, Cheryl helps Mark fondle her breasts.
    Cheryl: If you touch one, you have to touch the other. It's sort of a rule.
    Mark: (impressed) That's a good rule...
  • Tiny Guy, Huge Girl: Well, "tiny guy," at least. In Real Life, Mark O'Brien was less than five feet tall due to his condition. John Hawkes is actually 5'10", but the film's camera angles tend to obscure the lower half of his body, helping to leave the impression that Mark is small and frail.
  • You Can Leave Your Hat On: Played with. Cheryl takes her clothes off in front of Mark on multiple occasions, and encourages him to watch her doing so for his sexual gratification; later on her conversion to Judaism requires her to strip naked in front of an older female attendant. However, all of this is shot in an extremely matter-of-fact, unadorned manner that parallels Cheryl's open yet grounded relationship with her body and her sexuality.