The Sessions is based on an article by Mark O’Brien, a man who lived most of his life in an iron lung. Mark contracted polio at a young age and was left unable to use the muscles of his body from the neck down. Not that these muscles were not responsive. Needless to say, this left Mark with very limited functionality, yet he was a poet at heart, a thinker, and (if Ben Lewin’s film and John Hawkes’ remarkable performance are anything to go by) a fine, sensitive man.
In 1988, following an emotional attachment to one of his carers, Mark agreed to write an article about sex and the disabled. Mark had never had sex, and at the age of 38 felt a renewed longing to feel what so many people around him appeared to take for granted; the intimate contact of another human being. One of the subjects of his research put him in touch with a woman named Cheryl (Helen Hunt), a sex therapist who could help Mark to know a full sexual experience over the course of a maximum of six sessions. This film tells that tale.
John Hawkes has been on my radar for many years. An exceptionally gifted actor, he was one of the many highlights of HBO’s superb Deadwood (*cough* best-TV-show-ever *cough*), but even before that he added a distinctive presence to bit-parts in TV shows. It’s fun to look back on guest spots on shows like Millennium or Buffy the Vampire Slayer and a joy to see him receiving the benefit of meatier roles in the likes of Martha Marcy May Marlene and Winter’s Bone. The Sessions may be his finest work yet.
I’ve read a few interviews that Hawkes has given about The Sessions, and he appears to have been initially skeptical of taking on the role of Mark O’Brien; surely a genuinely disabled person would be equally up to the task? Nevertheless, he took the part and has made something quietly impressive out of it, all the more so when you consider the severe limitations he has had to work with. Adopting an awkward and surely uncomfortable posture for extended periods of time, restricted in his physical range. It’s a disciplined performance, but also one that never openly draws attention to itself. Hawkes’ Mark O’Brien is a thoughtful, rounded presence, his narration soft and brushed with the man’s own wit.
But his is not the only notable performance here. Praise ought also to be directed toward Helen Hunt for her work as Cheryl, and not just for the explicit nude sequences (which would not have drawn half as much attention had Hunt been twenty years younger – the hubbub over these scenes betrays the media’s obnoxious fear of age). As much as Hawkes does for O’Brien, Hunt makes Cheryl a whole person; private, equally thoughtful, complex and interesting.
In fact across the board performances are strong. Whilst Hawkes and Hunt take up much of the screen time, there is notable support from William H Macy as an open-minded priest, not to mention a few other familiar faces from the old Deadwood roster (Robin Weigert and W Earl Brown are as reliable as ever). But perhaps the most unsung work going on in the film’s margins comes from Moon Bloodgood as Mark’s replacement carer Vera. Initially appearing put-upon and judgemental of Mark’s sexual exploration, by the film’s close she has worked her way into our hearts just as Mark has worked his way into hers.
If this all sounds a little too sentimental then worry not. Whilst The Sessions is a tender and sensitive 95 minutes, its also a film that takes it’s subject matter seriously. There is a refreshing honesty to the way in which sex and disability (and attitudes toward both) are presented here which neither sensationalizes nor exploits either. At the same time, this isn’t a public information film. There is a light touch to the screenplay and Lewin’s direction is warm and deft. Intimacy can be a scary thing, whether you have the full use of your body or not, and Lewin’s film shows this both in Mark’s fear of that which he had thought impossible for him and in Cheryl’s caution over becoming emotionally involved.
This is a grown-up film about grown-up subject matter, and yet it feels light. This can work against the picture. Despite its admirable intentions and abundance of successes, it still feels relatively small and slight. A respectable curio which, for the most part, rejects the notion of overtly playing for drama as if this would be in some way offensive. And whilst the relationship that grows between Mark and Cheryl feels more genuine than the ones fabricated by countless modern romantic movies, the film itself is grounded by a more real-world sensibility.
All of which leaves The Sessions as a whole-heartedly recommended movie which never quite convinces as a ‘must-see’. It is however definitely worth investigation for those mature enough to appreciate it