At the age of 38, Mark O’Brien, a quadriplegic who had to spend all but a few hours of day in an iron lung, decided he wanted to lose his virginity. The Sessions is based on his experience and an article he wrote entitled On Sex and the Disabled.
When O’Brien (John Hawkes, Winter’s Bone, Martha Marcy May Marlene), a devout Catholic, talks to his parish priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy), the priest tells that in his heart, he believes that ‘God will give you a free pass on this one.’
So, O’Brien arranges an appointment with Cheryl (Helen Hunt), a sex surrogate, for a meeting at a friend’s house – since his only real furniture is that iron lung. When he treats the appointment like a call girl – ‘Your money is over there,’ she proceeds to explain the difference between sex surrogates and prostitutes (‘Prostitutes want repeat business. We will have a maximum of six sessions.’).
Because Cheryl is as intelligent and witty as O’Brien, they develop a relationship that is intense and special – and he not only achieves his goal, he does much better than that. At the same time, she finds that he is experiencing transference and becoming attached to her – there is a poem her husband (Adam Arkin) tries to prevent her from seeing. Between that, and the fact that she likes him perhaps a bit too much, they don’t make it to the full six sessions – leading to a scene where she finds herself much more vulnerable than she ever expected.
There is a good deal of nudity in The Sessions – we are talking about a sex surrogate doing her job, after all – but the nudity is handled very matter-of-factly and with no tendency toward moving over the line into cheap thrills. Hunt didn’t spend hours at the gym and, as a result, she looks like the forty-something woman she is. If nothing else, this matter of fact, professional detail helps establish the difference between surrogates and hookers as much as does Cheryl’s explanation.
A running arc deals with O’Brien’s various attendants – from Joan (Rusty Schwimmer), a loud-mouthed aid whom he finds intolerable, to Amanda (Annika Marks), a lovely, inexperienced attendant with whom he falls in love (a love which is, alas, no reciprocal), to Rod (W. Earl Brown), the amiable guy who gets the four-to-midnight shift, and, finally, Vera (Moon Bloodgood), the attendant who helps him dress for his appointments with Cheryl and offers quiet, solid support.
Schwimmer’s Joan isn’t around long enough to be more than the annoyance O’Brien sees her as, but Marks’ Amanda is there long enough for us to get a sense that while she may not be in love with him, she does care about. Rod we see fairly briefly, but he does answer some of O’Brien’s questions about relationships and sex – mostly humorously. It’s Bloodgood’s Vera, though, who picks out his clothes; takes him to his appointments, or to church, and who best matches him intellectually.
William H. Macy gives yet another lovely performance as the kind, generous Catholic priest who is down-to-earth enough to bring the beers after O’Brien has accomplished his goal.
The Sessions was written and directed by Ben Lewin who, like O’Brien, suffered from polio as a child but was fortunate enough to be able to get around with the aid of crutches. His script is mercifully free of treacle and any sense of sensationalism. It is firmly grounded in its truth and very witty.
It’s a film that says things about human nature, nurture and determination simply be telling its unvarnished story. Lewin keeps it moving a deliberate pace, allowing character beats to settle just as long as they must to convey the drama or humor in any situation. He elicits excellent performances from his cast – and both Hawkes and Hunt should be in the running for several best actor/actress awards. Macy and Bloodgood could be considered for their key supporting roles.
By the time the closing credits roll (after barely ninety minutes), this likable film finishes with a flourish that will make you go all misty – not from any cheap tricks, but from the impact a film about real events faithfully recounted can have.
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Photos courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures