The Sessions is a beautiful story, tenderly told. Based on a widely linked 1990 magazine article, it is the (mostly) true story of Mark O’Brien, a thirty-something man with polio who lives confined to a wheeled bed or an iron lung and who, wishing to experience sexual connection, seeks out a sex surrogate. It is not a story of “triumphing over disability,” although there are various triumphs and more than one disabled character.
O’Brien, played by John Hawkes, is an observant Catholic who “can’t tolerate the idea of not having someone to blame for all this.” The movie cuts back and forth between the life he leads with attendants, friends, and the subjects of his writing, and his conversations with and confessions to Father Brendan, a liberal Berkeley priest (William H. Macy). The movie’s unshowy portrayal of O’Brien’s Catholicism is remarkable. O’Brien takes his religion seriously, and it provides a structure for both his succor and his shame, but it’s not a totalizing experience, just a part of his life. It’s one of many details — the Berkeley setting is another — that give the movie a subtle, lived-in specificity. When we first meet O’Brien, he’s crinkling his nose to fend off a sneeze; in two other scenes, characters lift their hands to scratch their noses, a throwaway gesture that illuminates the extent of O’Brien’s prison.
Helen Hunt plays Cheryl, the sex surrogate who O’Brien finds through a therapist. Hunt is matter-of-factly naked and sexual, and the movie’s comic heart lies in their awkward and tender sessions, limited to six. There is a drama of transference and counter-transference — more commonly known as a love story — that feels invented (the various articles bear that out), but the characters feel real throughout. One theme that returns is how O’Brien’s helpers’ partners get jealous of him — it’s well played with the boyfriend of one of his nurses, but a little strained with Cheryl’s husband.
Hawkes is a good bet for an Oscar nomination, but I’d bet against a win–the movie is moving, but not bombastically or unbearably so. There may be a little too much joy.
See any good movies?