“The Sessions” a Most Unusual Film
By Skip Sheffield
“The Sessions” is a most unusual film. Before I go any further let me add that I think it has Oscar-worthy performances by stars John Hawkes and Helen Hunt and co-star William H. Macy as well as writer-director Ben Lewin.
What makes “The Sessions” so unusual is that it is about surrogate sex, yet it is not really about the act of sex. It is about friendship, love and redemption. Oh, and it is based on the true story of poet Mark O’Brien, who was confined to an iron lung for most of his life due to the destructive effects of polio he contracted at age 6.
The amazing John Hawkes (“Winter’s Bone”) plays Mark O’Brien. Though Mark is in an iron lung he can still write, using a pencil clenched between his teeth. Mark requires constant care, but he does get out of his iron lung and his house, thanks to his helpers. A devout Catholic, the
resident regularly goes to confessional with his parish priest, Father Brendan
(William H. Macy). Berkeley, California
Father Brendan is as an unusual a priest as Mark O’Brien is a polio survivor. There is nothing Mark can’t tell Father Brendan. When he tells him he longs to experience sexual union with a woman, and is thinking of hiring a sexual surrogate, Father Brendan understands and gives his blessing.
Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt) is the woman Mark hires. She lays down strict rules. There will be no more than six sessions; no socializing other than the therapy, and perish the thought of becoming emotionally involved. Cheryl is married and her husband knows what she does, but there are limits.
Cheryl is infinitely patient with Mark, who though a paraplegic, can achieve erection and orgasm.
Director Lewin, a polio survivor himself, uses a light touch in the awkward, tentative sexual encounters. “The Sessions” is actually quite funny at times. Fumbling sex is after all, pretty funny.
John Hawkes went to great lengths to approximate the shriveled, twisted physique of his character. Helen Hunt is warm and completely selfless as Cheryl, and dignified even when she bares all. Helen Hunt is 49 and beautiful, both in face and body, but it is her love and understanding that moves the viewer. This is the best performance of her career.
“The Sessions” is sad too. Losing his virginity at age 38 gave Mark more self-confidence and desire to have a relationship with an ordinary woman. Perhaps because of this he defied odds by living until age 49. Granted it was a short life, but “The Sessions” dramatically proves life can be fulfilling even under the harshest of handicaps,