At first glance, The Sessions appears to be primarily concerned with sexuality — or at least that was the impression I was under when I read pull quotes describing it as a brave sex-positive film. This is not exactly the case: the film goes well beyond those constraints, encompassing the expanse of the human condition even while the primary man in focus is trapped in his own body. The moving-biopic-about-someone that-cannot-move may not be a groundbreaking genre, but it can be a compelling one; by drolly conveying nascent adult sexuality on the continuum of love and mortality, the thoughtful film achieves honesty without pretension.
Taking us back to Berkeley of the late Eighties, The Sessions recounts the story of Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), a 36-year-old poet and journalist beset with immobilizing polio who decides he wants to lose his virginity before hitting, as he calls it, his “use by date.” Mark is physically confined and incapacitated by his disease, relying on attendants to push him around on a gurney and service his needs, and spending most of his time in an iron lung. Though he can only move the muscles in his face, he does have full sensation in his body — with occasional involuntary side effects. When an editor contacts him to write a story about people with disabilities and their sexual appetites, he feels like he needs to do some personal research. With the blessing of his priest, he hires a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt as Cheryl) for six afternoons of original therapy.
Adapted from O’Brien’s article, “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate,” writer and director Ben Lewin turns first-person journalism into something that straddles several lines of convention yet manages to avoid both the tedious devices of end-stage drama and the trajectory of the biopic. He achieves this confluence by fusing melancholic material with, through Mark’s wry observations, awkwardness and naïve candor. Sexually shy, disarming, and direct, Mark is much more than simply a polio survivor. Hawkes’s portrayal is defined as much by his corporal internment and its temporary freedoms as it is by his nasally delivery and desire for companionship. His performance is exceptional (and should get him an Oscar nomination) but it is only made possible by Hunt’s own liberated performance. While the outcomes are predictable, as Cheryl, she empathizes with his condition as a professional and a human, and doesn’t seem maudlin or self-righteous. That is, she does her best to keep it clinical.
If you look further into Mark’s story (even in a simple Web search) you’ll come across Jessica Yu’s short and revealing documentary, Breathing Lessons: the Life and Work of Mark O’Brien. Some of Mark’s most eloquent words, both poetic and reflective, are lifted directly from these outtakes. The difference is how they’re contextualized. In The Sessions, we see a devout Catholic joking about divine justice and explicitly sharing his exploits with his priest (depicted by a brilliantly dry William H. Macy); the real footage shows us the squalor of his apartment, where he tells us he believes in God because he needs someone to blame. I would be remiss if I didn’t say that the drama was romanticized, but the alternative would be a leaden affair. By concentrating on a brief period of ecstasy that we are all familiar with, The Sessions makes us privy to a brief window of hope which had long been deprived for its protagonist.