The Sessions (2012)
Rated – R
Directed by Ben Lewin
Starring: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy
In 1990, a man named Mark O’Brien published an article in the literary magazine The Sun titled, “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate.” Being paralyzed from the neck down because of polio since he was six years old, Mark wrote about his experience with sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene, which was the basis for the film. The result was a very carefully constructed story about a disabled man going through a spectacular journey.
Mark practically lived inside a contraption called the iron lung and could only survive a few hours a day outside of it. With the help of his caretakers, he still answered phones, wrote poetry on his typewriter, and attended church. At first, he was contacted by the magazine to interview disabled people about sex but to his surprise, soon discovered that they were all sexually active. The idea of him having the chance to lose his virginity in his paralyzed state intrigued him enough to go forth with a sex surrogate.
For most of the film, we focus in during Mark’s sessions with Cheryl, played by Helen Hunt in a very sophisticated performance. She takes her job serious and respects Mark from the start, but also takes control of the situation. Mark is shy and nervous with Cheryl the first few sessions, which is logical knowing his status, but he always shows a side of optimism throughout. He’s also very religious and confides in a priest (Macy) during all his encounters.
What was Mark really looking to achieve from these sessions? Alone in his own house with the only company being filled by his caretakers, it seems that he valued Cheryl’s friendship just as much as the sex. The layers of their relationship became complicated with the limit of their six sessions along with Cheryl’s husband becoming concerned with their intimacy, but it didn’t prevent them from becoming more than just therapist and client. They helped each other out in way neither of them thought was possible, and that’s what filled this movie with many touching moments.
Just hearing the plot, it’s easy to think of this as an idea for a comedy sketch and because of that it could have easily resulted in a tasteless portrayal of a disabled man losing his virginity. But because of the performances by John Hawkes and Helen Hunt, it never feels that way. Hawkes provides Mark with an innocence of a child when he announces his love for a beautiful caretaker and when he admits his journey to being a man to the priest. It’s incredible that this is the same man who played the intimidating uncle in Winter’s Bone and a cult leader in Martha Marcy May Marlene. Acting solely with his facial expressions and his voice, Hawkes amazes during every scene of The Sessions. He will deserve the Oscar nomination that he will receive.