NEW YORK — It's hardly a surprise when a contemporary Hollywood film showcases errant sexual values. What is disconcerting in the case of the fact-based drama "The Sessions" (Fox Searchlight) is the fact that such a skewed understanding of human sexuality should be subscribed to by a character representing a real-life Catholic priest.
As recounted, apparently, in the autobiographical writings from which the movie is adapted, devoutly Catholic 38-year-old journalist and poet Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes) has sought the advice of the clergyman in question, one Father Brendan (William H. Macy), because he finds himself in unenviable circumstances: Paralyzed from the neck down by a childhood bout of polio, and forced to spend most of his time in an iron lung, O'Brien has been deprived -- among many other things -- of the opportunity for physical intimacy.
Having decided to engage the services of a so-called sex surrogate to "remedy" this situation, O'Brien wants Father Brendan's OK for his proposed course of action. Sadly, that approval is all-too-readily forthcoming.
Sympathetic but irresolute Father Brendan, who has previously bemoaned that his training for the priesthood has equipped him with nothing more than a few "vague ideas," takes a moment to pray, then opines that Jesus will give O'Brien "a pass on this one." So O'Brien should "go for it."
However distressing the memoirist's plight, Father Brendan's proper response, of course, should have been to counsel his parishioner that all sexual activity outside of marriage is objectively sinful, and that personal misfortunes, physical or otherwise, cannot alter eternal moral truths.
Given those facts, he should have exhorted O'Brien to exercise his baptismal priesthood by sacrificially embracing the chastity appropriate to his state in life. Undeniably, it would have taken courage to offer such guidance, and courage to accept it. But the cowardly alternative only appears to be compassionate.
So it's off to the races with surrogate Cheryl (Helen Hunt), who insists that, although she's being paid to have sex, her role is quite distinct from that of a prostitute -- though how exactly she never manages to explain. Things only become more jarring when we're given a glimpse of Cheryl's home life with her husband and teenage son, since this raises the ethical stakes by introducing the element of adultery.
Although the titular encounters between the two main characters are not prurient or pornographic, they are nonetheless excessively explicit.
Writer-director Ben Lewin's script, moreover, displays an initially ambiguous, but ultimately negative attitude toward its protagonist's faith -- which Cheryl predictably identifies as a source of guilt and inhibition for O'Brien. Cheryl explains that she herself was raised Catholic but has long since thrown the church over.
In fact, Cheryl is about to convert to her husband's faith -- Judaism. A ritual mikvah bath undertaken as part of that process becomes an opportunity to show the Jewish faith as more body-positive than Catholicism.
The film contains anti-Catholic bias, a priest character who fails to uphold church teaching, strong sexual content, including graphic scenes of adulterous sexual activity with full nudity, a benign view of nonmarital and aberrant sex, at least one rough term and occasional crude and crass language. The Catholic News Service classification is O -- morally offensive. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R -- restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.