A film of tenderness and humor married to the unlikeliest of subjects, “The Sessions” presents the story of poet and polio survivor Mark O’Brien, who left behind an oeuvre of life-affirming writing despite his condition. But this is no mere biopic; Jessica Yu covered that quite nicely in her Oscar-winning nonfiction short “Breathing Lessons.” Instead, writer-director Ben Lewin’s film focuses on perhaps the most unusual chapter of O’Brien’s life, in which the iron lung-bound writer (here played by John Hawkes) arranges to lose his virginity with the help of a sex therapist (Helen Hunt). Careful treatment makes for an exceptional, expertly acted crowd-pleaser.
These are the facts, which the film shrewdly weaves throughout the story: O’Brien contracted polio at age 6, losing the use of pretty much everything below the waist and unable to live without artificial respiration for more than a few hours at a time. Rather than being sent to a nursing home, where life expectancy was 18 months, he was cared for by his parents, attended college on a self-propelled gurney and pursued a successful journalism career. Though his body was weakened, sensation remained, and after being assigned a series of interviews on sex and the disabled, he began to investigate the prospect of experiencing things for himself.
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By avoiding the impulse to explain everything up front, Lewin foregrounds Mark’s sense of humor, allowing his personality to show through his potentially depressing circumstances. From the beginning, he exhibits a frisky interest in sexuality, which feels unusual not because of his disability, but because so few films have been willing to deal with the subject as a source of anything other than shame or stimulation.
For this reason, “The Sessions” is a refreshingly sex-positive picture, serving to break down many of the barriers Mark (and audiences, too) have toward good, clean intercourse. In Mark’s case, the issue is complicated by his Catholic upbringing. Mark spends much of the film in confession with his church’s priest (William H. Macy), who serves as a form of therapist, while earning laughs for his drinking, smoking and slightly flexible moral guidance.
This being 1988, before the ubiquity of online pornography, Mark’s impure thoughts begin with Amanda (Annika Marks), a beautiful caregiver whose contact and affection inspire hope for a more traditional physical relationship. But Amanda already has a boyfriend, and Mark, unschooled in any aspect of interpersonal connection, scares her away with a naive marriage proposal. Undeterred, he seeks the advice of an academic, who turns him on to the idea of a sex surrogate.
With considerable trepidation — matched by equal encouragement from his assistants (Moon Bloodgood and W. Earl Brown) — Mark books an appointment with Cheryl Cohen Green (Hunt), a wife and mother whose unusual vocation involves putting patients in touch with their sexual feelings so they can later share intimacy with future partners. Though the entire picture is infused with a warm sense of comedy, the humor comes across most strongly in Mark’s first meeting with Cheryl, which mixes situational laughs with body language-based awkwardness, no easy feat for a performer confined to acting with his face.
Lewin doesn’t get coy when it comes to the actual sex, and the same goes for Mark’s faith, which plays a strong role in his worldview. “I believe in a God with a sense of humor,” he says, displaying a dash of his own wit later by adding, “I would find it absolutely intolerable not to be able to blame someone for all of this.”
Though the film samples a fair amount of O’Brien’s poetry, it was actually inspired by his article “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate.” Still, it’s one thing to write about one’s own experiences and quite another to translate them to screen without coming across as patronizing, tacky or just plain schmaltzy. Lewin, an experienced Polish-Australian helmer who has mostly recovered from a similarly debilitating case of childhood polio, deserves credit for striking just the right tonal balance, reinforced by Geoffrey Simpson’s gorgeously lit camerawork and Marco Beltrami’s tenderly understated score.
But performances are paramount in a film like this, and Hawkes works some kind of miracle despite the self-evident physical limitations of the role. His voice captures O’Brien’s unbeatable spirit as well as the sheer physical challenge of breathing, while his face is an open book to the man’s innermost hopes and fears. Hunt and Macy are similarly at the top of their game, underplaying the sentiment in favor of capturing the deeper humanity of their respective characters.