Following a bout of childhood polio, Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) lived his life alternating between a gurney and an iron lung. Minus a brief and terrifying stint on a motorized, mirror-laden contraption, he depended on others at all times for physical movement, and yet accomplished a great deal. He earned an English degree from UC Berkeley and became a journalist, activist, and poet. And through this poetry came the rather obvious truth that even someone with such a severe disability can still live a rich emotional and intellectual life. Such is the inspiring, eloquent, and entirely likable personage that we meet at the outset of The Sessions. Which makes it ever more interesting that this film glosses over all of the above in the first five minutes and focuses instead on O’Brien’s thirtysomething quest to lose his virginity with the assistance of a sexual surrogate named Cheryl (Helen Hunt).
The real-life O’Brien (who passed away in 1999) once admonished others not to call him courageous. “Saying a disabled person is courageous,” he declared, “is like saying that a black person has natural rhythm.” This film’s treatment of O’Brien’s life and pursuit of sexuality seems to take this lesson to heart. He exhibits courage, to be sure, but also embarrassment, shame, uncertainty, and terror, often mingled with wildly varying degrees of ecstasy. The film offers an incredibly true-to-life and universal exploration of one’s initial foray into sexuality, awkwardness and all. It uses O’Brien’s disability as a lens for his particular perspective rather than a facile and patronizing metaphor for the human condition, like so many lesser films on the subject.
Hawkes’ take on the character is simply marvelous, contrasting physical vulnerability with brazen and shameless honesty. There’s definitely more telling than showing with Hawkes’ character – with a screenplay based on O’Brien’s 1990 article, the film relies heavily on voiceover. And existing in a world of MPAA ratings, it also relies on O’Brien graphically recounting his unseen sessions with Cheryl after the fact, by way of conversations with the probably-fictitious Father Brendan (William H. Macy). Despite infusing O’Brien with a convincing measure of spirituality, the film doesn’t seem particularly interested in taking an in-depth look at the complex relationship between religion and sexuality. A late scene between Cheryl and a synagogue official had far more resonance in its discussion of the nervousness of young [naked] Jewish brides-to-be than any of the scenes between O’Brien and his priest. Hawkes and Macy make believable on-screen friends, but the Father’s religious cognitive dissonance really only played out on Macy’s face and never in the script itself. As amusing as it is to hear a priest suggest that Jesus Christ will give O’Brien “a free pass” for his plan, it all feels just a bit too tongue-in-cheek and cartoonish.
At various other points in the film, we see O’Brien recounting his sessions with his understandably curious friends and caregivers (including a nice turn by Moon Bloodgood), all of whom can identify on some level with what he is doing. Each of the scenes with Father Brendan could have been replaced by an equally frank conversation with just about any of his other acquaintances (or perhaps even Macy himself in another guise) and taken very little out of the film.
Despite this significant structural problem, the film has a great number of impressive scenes between Hawkes and Hunt during the titular sessions. Cheryl, a married soccer mom in her private life, is quite a believable character. She has the air of an experienced practitioner, but has clearly never worked with such a severely disabled client. She gets visibly flustered as she starts to realize the full extent of O’Brien’s needs (after accidentally bending his fingers the wrong way!). And yet, her dictated notes reveal just how consummately professional she is, discussing O’Brien’s progress and feelings in practical and psychological terms even as her human compassion remains a factor. Her marriage is also fascinating, with a husband (Adam Arkin) who isn’t threatened by his wife having sex with her clients, but gets quite chafed when one of them mails her a heartfelt poem. Hunt’s brilliantly multifaceted performance as well as her evolving interactions with Hawkes quite effectively demonstrate all the negotiations and compromises that enter the mix with sex and emotion. By the time the two are able to converse comfortably despite being two naked near-strangers in bed, it becomes clear just how adaptable human interaction can be.
In fact, the film’s examination of sexual surrogacy offers a curious counterpoint to the debate over the legal status of prostitution. Legally speaking, Cheryl is definitely in the world’s oldest profession, and yet the film goes out of the way to point out the myriad differences between herself and a conventional lady of the evening. She isn’t interested in repeat business- in fact, a self-imposed guideline prohibits it beyond a specific number of sessions. All she is interested in is helping her clients discover their preferences, limitations, and capabilities, using her own body to guide the position, performance, and sensation of the client’s body. In this sense, she fits into a role none-too-dissimilar from a physical or speech therapist. While most people can work out these personal factors with a romantic partner (whether or not they ever try to), it does seem a bit naive to assume that everyone is capable of doing so. On the other hand, we’re certainly seeing the best possible version of sexual surrogacy in this film, and the profession as a whole seems rife for potential abuse, both of its patients and practitioners.
But the fact that the film is willing to provoke these questions is certainly its greatest strength. In a world of slutshaming, date rape, sex trafficking, death penalties for homosexuality, and ecstasy laced with Viagra, it’s easy to forget that sex is not the dark, shameful, and scandalous thing that it so often seems. It is the one thing that binds us all together. We all have attitudes and morals, preferences and predilections. We all have a relationship with sex, regardless of how that relationship is expressed. And in the case of individuals like Mark O’Brien, that relationship was only limited by what his body was physically capable of expressing. The mind – and penis – were as willing as ever. This depiction, however close or divergent it might be from real life, manages to tackle a serious subject with a great deal of levity and humanity. Per his wishes, I won’t call O’Brien courageous. But The Sessions certainly tries to be.
FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10