The Sessions is an unusual film. Its delicate but frank exploration of sex and romance is presented in a way unlike any I’ve ever seen. The Sessions is based on the true story of Mark O’Brien, a poet who became paralyzed from the neck down after he contracted polio when he was 6. From then on he would be confined to an iron lung, a machine to help him breathe for the rest of his life. Following his heartbreak with a pretty young caregiver named Amanda, he embarks on a quest at the age of 38 to know love at its most physical.
What makes The Sessions so unique is the delicacy with which they treat Mark’s plan. I mean when you get right down to it, this is the story of one man’s journey to “get some“. But the quest does not come off as prurient as that simplification sounds. This is a man, an explorer if you will, ready to embark on a journey – a journey he had long resigned himself as a world he would never experience. For one it’s his disease that stands in his way but there’s his religious beliefs as well. A devout Catholic, well aware of the church’s teaching regarding such activities outside of marriage he struggles with his desires. Enter Father Brendan (William H. Macy) a priest that ultimately sympathizes with his plight. If the clergyman’s attitudes seem a bit unorthodox it might help to learn that his church is located in Berkeley, California – a population not exactly known for its orthodoxy. Although he appears to be more lenient in these matters, the conversation concerns not just sexual exploits, but also the feelings of love that go along with the intimacy.
The performances are what truly sets makes this minor drama, a revelatory portrait. John Hawkes disappears into the psyche of quadriplegic Mark O’Brien. Knowledgeable moviegoers will remember John Hawkes as the cult leader in Martha Marcy May Marlene. He has imbued roles with his own unique stamp before, but his portrayal here is a revelation. He often disappears like a chameleon into each part, but I can scarcely believe this is the same man. Through a combination of physicality – his body twisted into a curved state – and genuine sensitivity, he absolutely conveys the sincerity of his quest. It takes a special actor to suggest these subtle emotions. Hawkes masterfully makes Mark a character we deeply care about.
Matching him every step of the way is Helen Hunt who plays Cheryl Cohen-Greene, a professional sex therapist/surrogate. For those who are unclear as to how she differs from a prostitute, she offers that a prostitute wants your repeat business, she doesn’t. Just six sessions and that’s it. She is incredibly direct, laying out the guidelines. Her assertive tone is matter-of-fact, almost clinical. As the sessions progress, Helen Hunt reveals body and soul. Her interactions with Mark are the story’s foundation. Although, the script definitely doesn’t shy away from their carnal aspirations, there is a surprising amount of thoughtful discussion. These are the emotions of two human beings laid bare. This is a depiction few actresses could’ve carried off with remarkable dignity. I’m still not sure how she manages to bring an importance to the role, but she does. Her character is memorable.
The Sessions is decidedly adult. It’s a tale about sexual intimacy that treats its subject matter with reverence. Given that goal you may be surprised it’s presented with such honor that the objective actually comes off as noble. Perhaps that’s founded on Mark O’Brien’s condition. A sweet and insightful man, John Hawkes makes him a most charming fellow. I mean how many people would discuss these thoughts with their parish priest. Director Ben Lewin, who was disabled from polio himself, elevates the chronicle. This increased sensitivity is furthered by leads John Hawkes and Helen Hunt. Expect Academy Award nominations for both as this subject has rarely been explored with serious candor. They are at the center of The Sessions, the saga two people with their souls (and bodies) exposed. The Sessions is a minor story. We’re not presenting the discovery of a cure for cancer or a country’s passage of some major reform. This is a slight production of introspection made major by sincere heartfelt performances. Despite the stated mission, the execution is never titillating or jejune. It is adult in the most mature and rewarding sense of the word.