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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. Averted in that the song never actually appears in the movie.
  • An Aesop:
    • Sex can be weird, awkward and embarrassing, but that's okay if the parties involved are open about their needs and treat one another with kindness and respect. Or, more simply: as 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.
  • Artists Are Attractive: Cheryl develops feelings for Mark after he writes poetry for her.
  • Avoid The Dreaded NC-17 Rating: The reason why the film doesn't contain any Male Frontal Nudity.
  • Big Prick, Big Problems: Because his understanding of anatomy is derived entirely from some dubious sex manuals, Mark is genuinely worried that his penis will be too large to fit inside Cheryl, which results in his having a minor panic attack when they attempt intercourse for the first time.
    Mark: No, it won't fit! It'll hurt!
    Cheryl: Mark—stop. Stop. I promise you, nothing bad will happen.
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  • Bittersweet Ending: The last scene in the film shows Cheryl attending Mark's funeral several years after the main events. It 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 such as the following:
    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: from the outside they come across as a pretty average middle-class suburban couple, but Cheryl is something of a Granola Girl and her job is basically having sex with strangers, while her husband apparently spends most of his time playing the guitar and thinking about philosophy.
  • 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, California, from Massachusetts, and both come from Catholic backgrounds.
  • Cool Older Guy: Father Brendan is very accepting and supportive of Mark's decisions throughout the movie.
  • Cupid's Arrow: Cheryl and Mark develop romantic feelings for one another, despite knowing that they can never be in a relationship.
  • 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, one of Mark's caretakers, 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.
  • Eiffel Tower Effect: One scene starts with a shot of the Golden Gate Bridge, visually signposting the fact that the film takes place in the San Francisco Bay Area (although Mark and Cheryl don't live anywhere near the bridge itself).
  • Fetish:
    • According to Cheryl's therapy notes, Mark's fantasies mainly involve being punished.
    • Mark gets aroused by the sound of Cheryl peeing. He later discusses this with Father Brendan; another churchgoer overhears and is clearly not amused.
  • 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.
  • Good Adultery, Bad Adultery: Although Cheryl is technically cheating on her husband—from a physical perspective at least—every time she takes on a new client, her goal is to help people become more comfortable with their sexuality.
  • Good Shepherd: Father Brendan.
  • The Grunting Orgasm: Consistently for Mark, often accompanied by expletives.
    Mark: Oh, god—damn! Shit...
  • Idealized Sex: Virtually inverted, as the sex shown here is often awkward and even cringe-inducing.
  • 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.
  • Intimate Healing: What Cheryl does for Mark.
  • 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 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. Eventually, she's one of the attendees at his funeral.
  • Ms. Fanservice:
    • Cheryl, obviously—if she's in a scene, chances are she'll take her clothes off. It's justified, though, as her whole job is to be this trope for Mark In-Universe.
      • On the other hand, there's no real plot-related reason to show Cheryl's conversion to Judaism onscreen, but it does give her an excuse to get naked again.
    • Amanda too, albeit to a much lesser extent. She appears nude very briefly, and one of Mark's Imagine Spots has him envisioning 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. In fact, Mark still had around a decade of life ahead of him at the time the film is set.
  • Naked People Are Funny: One scene starts with a close-up of Cheryl wincing as muffled sounds are heard in the background. Cut to the wide angle shot and we get a full rear view of Cheryl kneeling, nude, over Mark's head as he struggles to perform oral sex on her. It's surprisingly explicit and mostly Played for Laughs.
    Cheryl: Are you okay down there?
    Mark: I'm choking!
    Cheryl: (horrified) Oh my god—
  • Not in My Contract: Cheryl makes it very clear that she is not a prostitute, though she has nothing against them.
  • 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.
  • 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: Cheryl's Boston accent drifts in and out over the course of the film.
  • Oscar Bait: It's an inspirational, bittersweet dramedy, based on a true story about a disabled person, starring a respected character actor who physically manipulated his body in order to play his role, and a former Oscar-winning actress doing full-frontal nudity in her late forties. For all of these reasons, the movie was widely tipped to be a key contender in the following year's Academy Awards. However, in the end only Helen 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.
  • Quest for Sex: Mark's goal is to lose his virginity.
  • Raging Stiffie: Happens to Mark quite often, despite his best efforts to control himself.
  • Romantic False Lead: Mark and Cheryl are this from one another. After their sessions are over, Mark develops 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. Religion in general is shown in a favorable light.
  • Scenery Censor: During the sex scenes, Mark is always covered up in some way, usually by a Modesty Bedsheet (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 otherwise.
  • Sex Is Interesting: Obviously applies here—the whole movie revolves around the topic of sex.
  • Shameless Fanservice Girl: Cheryl, to the point where it becomes a Discussed Trope when she enters a Mikvah bath as part of her conversion to Judaism:
    Synagogue attendant: I see you're very comfortable being naked.
    Cheryl: It's never been one of my problems.
  • Shiksa Goddess: Cheryl, who comes from a Christian background, is married to a Jewish man.
  • 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.
  • Talking in Bed: Cheryl and Mark do this on multiple occasions. Their conversations become more revealing and emotionally vulnerable as time goes on.
  • 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...
    • At another point, Cheryl offers to let Mark suck her nipples.
  • 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 a couple of inches taller than Helen Hunt, but the film's camera angles tend to obscure the lower half of his body, making him seem small and frail.)