A film review by Craig J. Koban November 28, 2012

RANK:  #23


2012, R, 95 mins.

Mark: John Hawkes / Cheryl: Helen Hunt / Brendan: William H. Macy / Vera: Moon Bloodgood / Amanda: Annika Marks

Directed by Ben Lewin, based on an article by Mark O'Brien

"I believe in a God with a sense of humor.  I would find it absolutely intolerable not to be able to blame someone for all this."

- Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes) in THE SESSIONS


THE SESSIONS introduced me to a world that I had no idea existed: the profession of sexual surrogacy for highly disabled people.  

That premise alone would invite a considerable amount of snickering from prospective viewers, but the wonderful aspect about Ben Levin’s reality-based drama is that it treats the job with an honest sincerity and compassion.   Sex in general always feels like a fairly taboo subject for most mainstream American films, so it’s kind of a small-scale wonder that THE SESSIONS treats human sexuality with an openness and – at times – humorous edge.  More importantly, the film treats sex less as  something cheaply titillating and more as a highly unique and intimate act between adults that’s a truly life-altering event. 

THE SESSIONS also tells the extraordinary story of Mark O’Brien, which in turn is based on a 1990 article he wrote called “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate.”   O’Brien certainly was given a very rotten hand in the game of life: when he was a young child he became the victim of polio, which later reduced him to being essentially paralyzed as an adult.  Actually, paralyzed is a wrong choice of words: he had feeling all over his body and his skin still had full sensation, it’s just that his muscles didn’t work, meaning that he could not move an inch of his body from the neck down.  Before he died in 1999 at the age of 49 he was just 4’7” and weighed around 60 pounds and was forced because of his condition to spend a majority of his days confined to an iron lung.  He had to be cared for 24/7 by caregivers (bathed, clothed, strolled around outside, etc), but he nonetheless never felt sorry for himself.  He became an educated man and accomplished writer, which seems amazing considering his limitations. 

The one thing that Mark (played in the film by the incredible John Hawkes, more on him in a bit) didn’t want to do was die a virgin (who does, really!?).  He is indeed capable of being sexually aroused and his…equipment…works perfectly fine, but his real problem is, of course, securing dates that would lead to a home run.  He realizes that, with his condition, he will not live a long and fruitful life (most people like him are lucky to make it out of childhood), so his yearning to be sexually fulfilled becomes more acute by the day.  Yet, as a truly devoted Catholic, the notion of sex before marriage seems like a definitive no-no.  He has many open and intimate conversations with a local Catholic Priest, Father Mike (a warm and congenial William H. Macy), who seems kind of conflicted by the teachings of the Bible and his new friend’s condition.  After much contemplation, Father Mike calmly tells Mark, “I know in my heart that God will give you a free pass on this one.  Go for it!”  This marks one of the only times perhaps in film history that a dogmatic Catholic Priest gives complete carte blanche to a virginal man to fornicate before marriage. 



It’s at this point that Mark meets an attractive middle-aged woman named Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt), who’s area of specialty happens to be working with the disabled to…fulfill their sexual needs.  She teaches the initially frightened Mark about intimacy – emotional and physical – about how to be with and touch an unclothed woman, and ultimately how to have sex with one, with her being the willing partner.  Yet, the more time she spends with Mark the more she finds herself treating him less as a patient and more as a tender and amiable human being that she begins to develop a less-than-scientific interest in. 

I think that in a lesser filmmaker’s hands that THE SESSIONS could have very easily derailed into something unseemly or – worse yet – a sensationalistic exercise in exploiting those far less fortunate in life than the rest of us.  Yet, Levin treats his subject with compassion and understanding, mostly because he is a polio survivor himself.  The insular world that Mark occupies is relayed in the film with a startling, matter-of-fact openness, as we become fly-on-the-wall witnesses to his everyday struggles.  However, he remains a figure of commendable inner fortitude and, most surprisingly, spunky wit.  Mark has a sort of self-deprecating deadpan humor about his own place in life and seems to have boundless and joyful optimism about his pursuits, even if they seem unobtainable.  At one point during an initial session, Cheryl asks Mark whether he is able to achieve an erection, to which he dryly responds, “Not by choice.” 

Hawkes is some kind of marvel here as O’Brien.  Many lay filmgoers are probably familiar with his face without knowing his name, which is probably why he’s so uncommonly good at immersing himself and disappearing into his roles (see his Oscar nominated work in WINTER’S BONE).  What Hawkes does here is even more astounding: he has to not only plausibly relay the frail physical presence and limitations of his role, but he also has to create a proud, intelligent, and headstrong figure that in no way is a simple-minded and self-loathing victim.  There is rarely a moment in the film where you disbelieve that Hawkes is a severely handicapped person (not since, say, Daniel Day-Lewis’s turn in MY LEFT FOOT has an able-bodied actor so completely and believably disappeared into the mind and body of a handicapped one).  More crucially, though, Hawkes fosters in O’Brien a person to respect and look up to: his fragile corporeal condition is a stark contrast to the mental man of wisecracking and disarming charm and optimism.  This performance all but cements Hawkes as one of the most powerfully low-key actors working in contemporary cinema.  

His partner throughout the film – in more ways than one – is Helen Hunt (still a natural beauty at nearly 50) that has to throw movie star ego out the door for her delicate and brave performance (she’s naked from head-to-toe throughout a majority of it, as an obvious part of her character’s job).  She has to bare herself not only physically for the role, but also has to render a woman of benevolence, warmth, and patience.  Not many actresses at 49 would be willing to submit themselves to the types of vanity-free exposure that Hunt has to engage in here, and the nonchalance that she throws herself into the film’s most intimate scenes are a revelation.  She has not been this confident in a film in years and, like Hawkes, she has a fly-in-under-the-radar skills as an actor that sometimes makes her performances seem less powerful than they otherwise appear.  Both performers are destined for Oscar consideration. 

For as heartrending and authentic as both Hawkes and Hunt are in the film, THE SESSIONS stumbles a bit, I think, with the role of Father Mike, who is played with a level of soft-spoken and agreeable charm by Macy.  Yet, even though he could have been reduced to a crude Bible-thumping caricature, Father Mike still remains one of those hard-to-swallow movie priests that seems easily willing to forgo his own spiritually teachings when a convenient script allows for it (a real life priest, I would estimate, would be far less liberal minded than Mike here).  Yet, THE SESSIONS still emerges as a real surprise as an enjoyable, engaging, sometimes light-hearted, and frequently moving testament to O’Brien’s life and his pursuit to get lucky.  The film rightfully purports a life lesson that all viewers could take in: experience life to your absolute fullest and never let physical limitations, religious dogma, or apprehensions over failure impede your goals.   Lastly, THE SESSIONS – despite what you’ve heard – is not a dirty film about explicit sex, per se; rather, it’s an explicitly candid and humane one about it. 

  H O M E