Just what the world needs: another movie where the protagonist sets out to lose his virginity with the help of his friends. Actually this one is a little different. The hero is almost 40 years old, and the best friend is a Catholic priest.
The Sessions is based on the true story of Mark O’Brien, who lost the use of most of his body to polio at a young age. He’s lived most of his adult life in an iron lung that, for him, has been something like a chastity belt. He used to get around in a motorized gurney, but the authorities thought that was too dangerous, so now he has helpers who push him around. He writes articles and poetry for money. When someone asks him what it’s like being a poet, he says it’s a way of earning a living inside his own head.
R for strong sexuality including graphic nudity and frank dialogue
Mark decides the human experience is incomplete without sex, so he sets out to make it happen. He’s never been able to get a date and decides instead to seek professional help. That’s where Cheryl (Helen Hunt) comes in. She’s a sex therapist, an occupation that Mark and his priest (William H. Macy) have to ponder — what’s the difference between a specialist and “the common prostitute,” Father Brendan (Macy) wonders. I haven’t yet seen Scarlet Road, which is an Australian documentary about a sex worker who specializes in treating the handicapped — but I’m guessing it makes a good double feature with The Sessions.
The movie glides over the moral implications relatively easily. I suspect there are Catholics who will say the movie is too glib about the question of sin. I also suspect there are Humanists who wonder why a church would even be consulted in a purely personal matter. Mark is very Catholic and he says he couldn’t be an atheist because he likes to have someone to blame for his condition. When asked about why he hasn’t had sex yet, he says “I always expected God or my parents to intervene.”
John Hawkes ( Winter’s Bone, Martha Marcy May Marlene) gives a very good lead performance as a man with limited mobility. His character is occasionally self-pitying and often self-deprecating, so he generally comes out ahead. Not everyone would find him charming — the character often seems like he’s trying too hard to be liked. But Mark has little choice.
For better or for worse, Mark begins his sessions with Cheryl. The movie is quite frank about sex and love, but not overly graphic. For a movie all about sex, The Sessions is not very erotic. Still, The Sessions may not be a good movie to watch with your parents, or on a first date.
Not surprisingly, Mark and Cheryl are not completely able to keep the sessions purely physical. Nobody has ever been as kind to Mark as Cheryl. And though we don’t know what her other patients are like, she seems to have let him in a little deeper that she was expecting. Interestingly, the film includes scenes with Cheryl’s husband Josh (Adam Arkin). Obviously this man knows what his wife does for a living, yet still there are boundaries that Cheryl may have let Mark cross.
The Sessions remains humble in its scope. It’s not meant to be Mark’s entire life story (though we do get an introduction and a coda). It’s truly about the sessions Mark had with Cheryl. By focusing on sexuality, the film is really about human fulfillment. Survival isn’t enough. Acceptance isn’t enough. Yet fulfillment remains out of reach for lots of people. To that end, the film may take a sympathetic stance on prostitution, which may be problematic for another segment of the potential audience. But so be it. The Sessions tells Mark’s story and not theirs.
The Sessions is not particularly deep, and it’s not as gripping or intense as, say The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, but it’s a well made biopic for those not put off by frank sexuality or the idea of a sex therapist.