The Sessions is based on the real-life story of Mark O’Brien, a poet who suffered from polio at the age of six. Confined primarily to living and working in an iron lung, Mark, with an excellent sense of humor, managed to make the most of his life. He attended and graduated from the University of California at Berkeley, found work as a poet and journalist, and lived a comfortable life with friends. At the age of 38, he decided that it was time to lose his virginity.
Mark has come to a point in his life where he wants one thing, the one thing all men want, to have sex. That is actually a simplification of what Mark really wants. What he really wants is not just the ecstasy of an orgasm but also the ecstasy of love. Like so many of us, he has confused those two emotions. He has to learn to get past that.
Mark (John Hawkes) is a very likable individual. Polio has left him paralyzed from the neck down, but he has managed to survive his disease with a good sense of humor. He requires everyone around him to function accordingly. It is never stated in the dialog, but I imagine that Mark simply doesn’t have the time for people to fret and worry over him. Mark lives primarily in an iron lung, but with an oxygen tank, he can be mobile for two or three hours a day. Since he can’t move more than his mouth, he requires caretakers to clean him, take care of him, and push his gurney around town. The first caretaker, Joan (Rusty Schwimmer), doesn’t look down on him in an obvious manner, but as Mark describes her, she thinks he needs her more than she needs him. Mark fires her to prove her wrong. Joan is replaced with Amanda (Annika Marks), the first of three women that he falls in love with. Amanda is wonderful. She is fun, lovely, attractive, and cares deeply for Mark. She loves him, but not in that way. He loves her in that way. I assume that this is what gets the ball rolling for Mark in the nether region.
Amanda is replaced by two new caretakers, Rod (W. Earl Brown) and Vera (Moon Bloodgood). Mark is summoned by UC Berkeley to write a piece on sex and the disabled. Mark starts to interview, and a whole world is opened up to him. Suddenly, something that has been off-limits to him now seems completely plausible. The funding for the articles doesn’t come through, but the knowledge of a sex surrogate does. A sex surrogate is a sex therapist with a more hands-on approach. Although money is exchanged for sex, it is different from prostitution. A prostitute’s goal is to maintain client relations. A sex surrogate’s goal is to achieve the desired intimacy goal within a limited number of sessions.
The surrogate, Cheryl (Helen Hunt), is a married woman with a fairly understanding husband, Josh (Adam Arkin). She agrees to six sessions with Mark, and the bulk of the film is played lying down. Hunt spends a good portion of the film nude, but there is very little that is erotic about the sex scenes. There is the occasional humor of premature ejaculation, but most of the bedroom scenes are composed of Cheryl and Mark talking. Mark is a devout Catholic and carries with him a very heavy burden of guilt, not uncommon among Catholics. Mark blames himself for his sister’s death—his parents were watching him and not her. He also blames himself for his parent’s ultimate sacrifice, “they gave up their lives so I could have one.” Cheryl works very hard with Mark to overcome his guilt and shame in hopes of a better, sexual healthy life.
Most of the film is told in flashback to the new priest in residence, Father Brendan (William H. Macy). This narration serves two purposes: it is a confession where Mark may have his sin absolved while also receiving guidance from Father Brendan. When Mark first proposes the idea of a sex surrogate to Father Brendan, it does not go over well. Sexual relations outside of marriage are right out of the question. Mark admits that he tried to go about things in the proper manner with Amanda, but that didn’t take. “My penis speaks to me, Father,” Mark confesses. This truly is a different kettle of fish altogether. Father Brendan comes to a wonderful conclusion, “In my heart, I feel like He’ll give you a free pass on this one.” What an answer!
Mark needs to experience sex because he needs to have as many human experiences as possible. Only he is slightly confused. What he wants isn’t sex; it’s love. How many times have we made this same mistake? Sex probably didn’t exist as a possibility in Mark’s life until Amanda entered. Now that she came, something was awoken. Mark starts to fall in love with Cheryl because she is nice to him, and they share a level of intimacy that he hasn’t experienced with anyone else. After Cheryl, Mark meets another, the third love of his life, Susan (Robin Weigert). Mark has always been a charmer, but now he has the confidence that sex brings. Susan doesn’t stand a chance.
In the end, he dies. We all do. A funeral brings together all of the characters of Mark’s life under the roof where he confessed his story to Father Brendan. They are all sad that Mark is gone, but considering the life that he led after he contracted polio, there is a real celebration to it. The women in Mark’s life acknowledge each other silently. They know in their hearts that Mark loved them each in a unique way.
Writer/director Ben Lewin handles the material with real sensitivity but skips over anything that might come off too saccharine. The performances are very good, especially Hawks, who has managed to transform himself in every role he has been in. I can think of no better way than to describe this as a nice film. There are a lot of lessons to be learned here, and it is a good story, but it’s not something that is going to bowl one over with illuminations. Cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson brings the story to the screen with a very workman-like quality. Nothing out-of-place in each frame, but nothing we are not already used to. However, the closing shot has a haunting poetry to it. The iron lung sits silently in Mark’s house, dark, quiet, his cat perched atop. Here he was born, and here he died. Thankfully, somebody took notice.
The Sessions (2012)
Written & Directed By: Ben Lewin
Produced By: Judy Levine, Ben Lewin, Stephen Nemeth
Starring: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy, Moon Bloodgood, Annika Marks, W. Earl Brown, Robin Weigert, Rusty Schwimmer
Fox Searchlight Pictures, Running Time 95 minutes, Rated R, Released on October 21, 2012.