The Sessions, directed by Ben Lewin. Screenplay by Ben Lewin, based on an article by Mark O’Brien. Starring John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, and William H. Macy. Distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures. Rated R for strong sexuality including graphic nudity and frank dialogue. Running time: 95 minutes.
The Sessions tells the remarkable story of Mark O’Brien, who contracted polio at age six in 1955 and relied on an iron lung for the rest of his life. Despite his severe disability—he could move only his neck and face muscles and could leave the iron lung for only a few hours at a time—O’Brien attended college, became a poet and journalist, and pursued sex and romance. The film focuses on this last pursuit; the “sessions” refer to O’Brien’s visits with a sex surrogate (a therapist who has sex with clients), which took place when O’Brien was thirty-six years old. These sessions enabled O’Brien to pursue romantic love later in life.
The film is tough to watch, for O’Brien’s life was not an easy one. And yet his story is profoundly inspirational. If this man with his severe disability could passionately pursue an education, a career, and sex and romance, then what excuse could the rest of us possibly have for not ambitiously pursuing our own values?
The acting of John Hawkes as O’Brien and Helen Hunt as the sex surrogate is outstanding. Hawkes had to create an interesting and sympathetic character while lying nearly motionless on a gurney, something he accomplished with his tone of voice and often-humorous timing. Hunt faced the challenge of conveying the emotional conflicts and hidden passions and regrets of her character, mostly through her facial expressions and body language. (She faced the added challenge of acting convincingly while nude in very intimate and unusual sex scenes with Hawkes.) The acting of Moon Bloodgood also deserves praise; she portrays O’Brien’s introverted yet devoted assistant.
Not everything about the movie is praiseworthy, however. Although William H. Macy’s acting is usually remarkable, in this film it is wanting. Part of the problem is that Macy portrays a priest who sympathetically discusses with O’Brien his unique sexual problems—a role that may be too fantastic for anyone to play convincingly. Another and related weakness is that rather than exploring the clash between religion and the need and life-serving value of sexual pleasure, the film punts on it.
On the whole, though, The Sessions is a value-oriented film about a man who heroically pursues his goals, overcomes seemingly insurmountable odds, and achieves a rich life in spite of his poor situation. Viewers can’t help but say, if he can do it, so can I.