“Cleansed and victorious”
Already the subject of an Oscar-winning documentary short depicting his journalistic career entitled Breathing Lessions: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien, it appears the now deceased polio survivor had a salacious moment in his life yet to be told. Author of the 1990 magazine article “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate”, O’Brien had done just that. Saddled with feelings of embarrassment whenever thoughts about his sexuality or inability to control his body cropped up, there came an opportunity to do what he never dreamed possible. Propositioned to pen a story on the handicapped and their sex lives, his research brought him in contact with a defunct sex therapy department at UC Berkley, the school he had attended for poetry. Delving deeper into the concept, O’Brien soon found himself becoming his own interviewee on the road to losing his virginity.
Written and directed by Ben Lewin, The Sessions introduces us to a man trapped inside his own mind. Unable to move anything but his head due to the disease’s effect on muscle movement, O’Brien (John Hawkes) could only be outside of an iron lung for three hours at a time. As such, any chance at a social existence beyond the attendants hired for his care was impossible. And once he declared his love for the youngest of these (Annika Marks‘ Amanda), her inability to process the emotions such a responsibility entailed left him defeated to the prospect of forever being alone with the God he good-naturedly blamed for his troubles. Too quick to attach with those showing even the smallest shred of interest, inevitable rejection devastated every time.
He’s a tragic soul believing he was the cause of his sister’s death and the burden his parents were forced to bear. Besides a couple of assistants he could trust implicitly—Rod (W. Earl Brown) and Vera (Moon Bloodgood)—his only source for a confidant came in the form of his priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy). Versed in the ways of consoling the unfortunate, this man of God is left a bit on his heels when made to weigh in on the subject of Mark seeking the help of a sex surrogate to finally feel pleasure in what he had always felt shame. The question of whether his therapist Cheryl (Helen Hunt) was anything more than a prostitute comes up, but it’s quickly answered with a resounding “No” after witnessing the level of professionalism and empathy involved.
Titled The Sessions for a reason, the film becomes a touching look at the scale of intimate love’s blurring boundaries over the course of Mark and Cheryl’s clinical union. For her this is a job—she takes notes after each visit, lays down specific ground rules, and always returns home to her husband Josh (Adam Arkin). Progressive to the nth degree, Josh’s unemployed philosopher accepts her work as a worthy cause until the strict delineation begins dissolving. While they agree to six sessions readying Mark for the prospect of finding a woman who could love him, the connection formed is stronger than anyone could have anticipated. Mark is a poet in touch with his emotions and she a creature susceptible to his innocent charms. It’s a bittersweet truth proving how love can sometimes make life worse.
Tough to call what transpires by-the-books since it is such a unique situation, these types of stories do intrinsically find a way to feel familiar in their unfamiliarity. That which makes it a profitable subject for film is exactly what helps label it clichéd and predictable. It’s therefore up to the details to set it apart from the other feel good tales of underdogs beating the odds, including a welcome sense of humor. There are dark moments of painful rejection and unavoidable disappointment, but brief inflections of laughter caused by a flabbergasted motel concierge or invested priest help temper them so they may resonate more. And when you see the genuine smiles naturally forming on the faces of Hunt, Marks, and Robin Weigert‘s Susan in direct response to O’Brien’s wit, it’s unavoidable to understand what an amazing man he was.
Hunt bears her soul and body for the role, diving into a character that refuses to see sex as taboo. Contrasting her comfort in being nude for a large portion of the film is Hawkes’ portrayal of O’Brien’s shy fear. Led his entire life to believe he could do nothing but harm those he loved, the intimacy they share in bed together opens him to an entirely new world. Usually adjectives like ‘brave’ get bandied about to the point of over-saturation where nudity is concerned, but I believe it apt in this instance. Both actors show an immeasurable amount of heart in their depiction of a powerful bond stemming from an unorthodox business arrangement that would indelibly alter them. The way in which Hawkes must contort his body for full authenticity could earn him an Oscar nomination alone.
Despite this all-encompassing professionalism, however, there is still that lingering notion I’ve seen it all before. The tale of a crippled being made whole by a stranger who also needs a shot of purpose is a trope Hollywood has been recycling over and over again whenever introduced to a new, slightly different spin. I say this not to slight Mark and Cheryl’s journey towards a miraculous rebirth of love; only that I’m not sure the film itself can overcome its subject matter to be more than its vessel. A brilliant showcase for some inspired and touching performances, the story has a hard time transcending above being a touching portrait of humanity in its purest form. Maybe I’m wrong, though, and that’s enough.
 John Hawkes as “Mark O’Brien” on the set of THE SESSIONS. Photo By Sarah M. Golonka
 Helen Hunt as “Cheryl Cohen Greene.” Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures
 William H. Macy as “Father Brendan.” Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures