No doubt about it, you’ll be hearing much about The Sessions (if you aren’t already) as part of the awards season conversation. It’s got all the ingredients: it’s based on a true and inspirational story; very good performances that require much physically from the lead actors; irreverent humor; and a touch of taboo breaking.
The premise is rather simple and straightforward, indeed single-minded. Journalist and poet Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) was stricken with childhood polio, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down—he composes his pieces by tapping out one letter at a time with a stick he hold in his mouth. He also must spend hours a day in an iron lung to assist with his breathing. At the age of 38, he is still a virgin, his condition making it difficult, if not near impossible, to pursue relationships with women. After scaring away a female assistant with an impulsive confession of love, and being assigned to write a piece on sex and the disabled, Mark sets out to find a way to finally have sex. With the help of therapist/sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt), he achieves this goal. And that’s pretty much the film. Outside of some embellishing details and minor conflicts, The Sessions is entirely its premise, and offers almost nothing artistically outside of that. So while the film is well acted and is a smoothly pleasant experience, it doesn’t have a lasting resonance.
One interesting aspect of The Sessions is the role religion plays in all this, specifically Mark’s Catholic-based guilt over sex, inculcated into him from childhood. This occasions his frequent confessions to Father Brendan (William H. Macy), a kindly and rather permissive priest (fitting in well with the film’s setting—1988 Berkeley, CA) to whom Mark relates his sexual feelings. Amusingly, these confessions take place in full view of other churchgoers; Mark must be carried on a gurney everywhere he goes, making him unable to fit into the confession booth. Before seeing the sex surrogate, Mark seeks Father Brendan’s advice, and permission, to lose his virginity outside of wedlock, wanting to know if God will be okay with that. “In my heart, I feel He’ll give you a free pass on this one,” Father Brendan generously says.
The heart of the film is, of course, the titular “sessions” Mark has with Cheryl, the details of which are based on O’Brien’s 1990 article “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate.” Mark naively offends her at their first meeting by leaving money on his dresser for her. She gently but firmly makes it clear that she is a therapist, not a prostitute; the difference between her and a sex worker is that she is there to help him get in touch with his body, and is not interested in repeat business. She sets the limit at six sessions, an unexplained and seemingly arbitrary number. After each session, she records clinical notes on their progress into her tape recorder.
The scenes occasions some of the best moments of the film, focusing on the physical challenges for both Hawkes and Hunt—Hawkes having to convey his performance entirely through his facial expressions, and Hunt required to be fully nude. These scenes are by turns humorous, awkward, and touching. Both actors have been justifiably praised for effectively getting across the sense of experiencing sex in an admirably de-glamorized fashion.
The closest this film comes to a serious dramatic conflict occurs when Cheryl’s husband Josh (Adam Arkin), who is normally quite understanding and accepting of her profession, gets angry when he intercepts a love poem Mark sends to Cheryl, an indication that romantic feelings may be creeping in to these sessions. And indeed, their last session is a quietly and nicely underplayed parting.
The Sessions plays very much like a fairytale, complete with a happy ending, in both the innocuous and more prurient senses of that phrase. Mark encounters no opposition to his pursuit, and everyone around him is very supportive and indulgent of his needs and desires. As satisfying as all this may be to watch, it unfortunately results in a film that is very slight and lacking in narrative drive. The Sessions is so defined by what it isn’t—not weirded out by sex, frank talk about sex, or disabled people engaging in it—that what it actually is turns out to be not all that extraordinary. Jessica Yu’s 1996 Oscar-winning short documentary, Breathing Lessons, still remains the definitive portrait of the late Mark O’Brien, conveying the full life of this remarkable man in a mere 35 minutes. In contrast, The Sessions, in three times the length, reduces Mark O’Brien to a guy looking to get laid who writes poetry occasionally.