A film review by Craig J. Koban November 28, 2012
2012, R, 95 mins.
2012, R, 95 mins.
Mark: John Hawkes /
Cheryl: Helen Hunt /
Brendan: William H. Macy /
Vera: Moon Bloodgood /
Amanda: Annika Marks
"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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.