Based on the life and autobiographical writings of Mark O’Brien, a California journalist and poet who sought the full range of human experience despite being mostly confined to an iron lung, The Sessions tells its remarkable story with humor, frankness, little fanfare and no sanctimony.
Born in 1950, O’Brien was paralyzed by polio at age six and thereafter unable to breathe on his own. However, at times in his life he was strong enough to survive for several hours at a time outside the iron lung by means of a portable respirator. With the aid of this device, he enrolled at age 28 at UC Berkeley, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s in journalism, traveling around campus on an electric gurney that he controlled with a stick held in his mouth.
He began contributing articles on his quest for independent living as a disabled person to periodicals, and writing poetry. (Before his death in 1999 he participated in a documentary, Breathing Lessons, by Jessica Yu, that won the Oscar for Documentary Short Subject in 1996.)
The film starts with Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), who is a devout Catholic, becoming, at age 38, interested in the idea of losing his virginity. As he tells Father Brendan (William H. Macy), the priest whom he consults, “My penis speaks to me.” Turns out, the organ is fully functioning. It’s just the body around it that lacks function, a limitation no woman in his life can overlook. Thanks to an article he’s been assigned, on the topic of sex and the disabled, he comes to learn of professionals—sex therapists and surrogates—who help people like him understand their sexuality.
Father Brendan helps him overcome doubt about the sinfulness of consulting such a professional for himself, but Mark is still fearful. Aside from the guilt of his 1950s Catholic upbringing, he harbors a great deal of shame over his illness and his body. Forget sex. His every physical need, from bathing to bodily functions to getting dressed, must be met by paid attendants. Yet he hasn’t been touched, out of love and tenderness, since he can remember.
Enter Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt), a gentle, competent and unflappable surrogate who helps him explore his own body and its capabilities with great openness, strength and sensitivity. Much has been made of the fact that Hunt spends a great deal of her scenes in the buff. And let me say, she looks fantastic for any age and especially for 49. However, it is her emotional directness and vulnerability that most impress. Her Boston accent was a trifle overblown and wayward, but her hold on her character’s moral lights never wavers. As the priest who listens to his gut and roots for his faithful parishioner, Macy lets loose his hair (literally) and dials down his usual intensity, to good effect.
Adam Arkin plays Cheryl’s husband, a burly, masculine man who is supportive of his wife’s work and comfortable with her position as the family’s breadwinner. However he reaches his limit when Mark, in a moment of classic transference, oversteps the client-surrogate bounds by sending Cheryl a love poem.
This is a true grown-up film. Meaning that there is far more nudity, graphic sex, and what in the ratings biz is referred to as “adult situations” than in any of the soi-dit raunchy party films featuring kids half these characters’ ages. The Sessions, however, takes on this content with maturity and wisdom, without the squeamishness and hysteria that characterizes the more juvenile genre.
That doesn’t mean it’s great filmmaking. One wonders why the movie was made. To teach us some lessons on tolerance and universal human needs? As an actors’ showcase? Calculated award season bait? There’s a flatness and smoothness to the story and characters that feels calculated and determinedly uplifting. It’s a sex movie that lacks passion, although there are moments of maudlin, especially in a funeral scene after O’Brien finally succumbs to his body’s weaknesses at age 49. Thankfully, these are few and far between. For the most part this movie cuts a clean path in choppy waters.