You’d have to be a hardhearted individual indeed not to be moved by Mark O’Brien’s story. Having contracted polio at the age of six, the writer spends most of his time confined in an iron lung, a prison he’s dependent on for up to 19 hours a day. Yet, this hardly proves to be an impediment to his mind. He imagines myriad possibilities for his life, chief among them, what it would be like to have sex. His journey toward realizing this ambition makes up the bulk of Ben Lewin’s The Sessions, an earnest account of O’Brien’s trial-and-error process that led to his losing his virginity.
Delicate territory to be sure, the film does a fine job of delivering some effectively humorous scenes, most revolving around O’Brien’s wry, self-effacing sense of humor, as well as treating his quest with the gravity befitting it. However, where it stumbles, almost to the detriment of the entire movie, is in rendering the relationship that develops between O’Brien and his sexual surrogate. Not nearly enough time is devoted to allow it to progress in a logical and believable manner.
O’Brien’s journey begins when he’s assigned to write a story on sex and the disabled. At first shocked by what he learns, he comes to realize that he may get some bit of sexual satisfaction of his own with a surrogate, a proposition that simultaneously fills him with excitement and dread. An expert in this area is recommended, a contact is made and soon O’Brien is meeting with Cheryl (Helen Hunt), a specialist in what she calls “body awareness exercises.” Her plan of action is blunt and uncomplicated – they will have no more than six sessions together in which O’Brien will learn how to read various sensations his body detects, learn the rudimentary skills involved in intercourse by practicing with her, and then she will be on her way.
There are many ways this material could have been mishandled but Lewin is able to combine scenes of frustration, embarrassment, humor and passion in such a way that none of them feel indelicate or exploitive. Perhaps most important to the success of the film is that O’Brien is never portrayed as an object of pity, but rather a courageous, inquisitive man who’s eager to get as much out of life as he possibly can despite his physical limitations and natural feelings of insecurity. John Hawkes is fantastic in the role, limited to only the expressions he makes with his face and movements of his head. This is a performance, based around the actor’s eyes as he conveys the gamut of emotions O’Brien experiences to amazing effect with them. Hunt is equally as good, naked physically throughout most of the film as well as emotionally exposed during its third act. Her infrequent appearances on screen make us forget what an effective actress she can be.
However, despite the principal’s fine efforts, Lewin’s screenplay employs some emotional shorthand that threatens to undercut the entire film. As the sessions progress, O’Brien and Cheryl’s relationship develops in a way that, while not entirely unexpected, is far too hasty to be believed. I had a hard time accepting that the therapist’s feelings about this undertaking and her client could change and become so deep, so quickly. It’s a hollow note that simply doesn’t ring true, yet there are enough honest moments sprinkled throughout to give this gaffe a pass.
Of particular note are the scenes in which O’Brien seeks counsel with Father Brendan, a Catholic priest alternately bemused, confused and perhaps a bit aroused as he hears of his parishioner’s trials. William H. Macy perfectly captures the character’s conflicting emotions and the scenes he shares with Hawkes are among the film’s best.
Though flawed, The Sessions ultimately proves to be a moving testament to living life not with limitations but rather to the fullest extent that our mind and spirit can take us. O’Brien’s journey is ours as well, proving that often the greatest limitations we face are the ones we place on ourselves, which coincidentally are the most difficult yet satisfying to break.
Contact Chuck Koplinski at firstname.lastname@example.org.