The premise of The Sessions is enough to make even the most jaded filmgoer squirm: A man with severe polio, who can barely move and must sleep in an iron lung, consults with a “sexual surrogate” to experience the pleasures of lovemaking. I mean, is there some dotted line where I can sign HELL NO?
But seriously, don’t be deterred.
Because in its own way, The Sessions is a small miracle. To work, the film needed to be tender without being maudlin, physically plausible without being clinical, funny without being patronizing, sexual without being pornographic, sweet without being sugary, and so on. Indeed, that delicate balance is achieved.
Literally, from the film’s opening moments—as a cat crawls across the top of an iron lung and sunlight streams through an open window—you know you are in good hands.
Because right away you get a sense of loneliness and isolation and right away, you hear the voice of our hero Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), a real man, whose poetry and writings provide some of the content of the film. It’s a great voice, especially in Hawkes’ marvelously capable hands, reminiscent of David Sedaris—droll, funny, a little pissed off, ironically aware of his horrible fate in life, but still alive to life’s possibilities.
The whole film has a remarkable degree of intimacy: We see the world through Mark’s perspective, we’re attuned to his hopes and fears, but mostly to his perceptive, poetical heart.
One of the great conceits of the film is that Mark shares his thoughts with a good-natured, hippieish priest, played drolly by William Macy. Macy’s Father Brendan is quite liberal, as far as Catholic priests go, and not only does he encourage his parishioner’s pursuit of physical intimacy, he’s even a bit jealous of it. (The film makes a strong case that sexual intimacy is an integral part of the human experience—Father Brendan, of course, is on the outside looking in.)
The scenes between Helen Hunt, as the sexual surrogate, and Mark are wonderful. I know it’s a cliché to describe a performance as brave—but Hunt really earns that accolade. She spends much of the film naked, as she initiates Mark into the pleasures of the human flesh—and she’s completely convincing as this strange practitioner, part psychologist, part courtesan.
If there’s one thing I didn’t quite buy in the film, it’s the transition from client/practitioner to something deeper between Mark and Hunt’s Cheryl. Of course, it’s not surprising that Mark would fall for this calm, encouraging woman who has sex with him—transference, Cheryl notes, is almost inevitable. But why does Cheryl form such an attachment to him? Mark is almost frozen with fear at first, but eventually allows Cheryl to see his wise, witty, and giving self. He even writes her a beautiful poem. (He has a romantic’s heart, trapped in an uncooperative body). But Hunt comes across as so believably professional, the film didn’t quite make a solid case for her loss of objectivity.
Still, there’s so much to love here. The Sessions is a film that is funny and frank about sex and disability and the different kinds of intimacy. And more than that, it introduced me to a great character, a man who refused to be defined by his limitations, one who I’m really glad I got to know.