Mark O’Brien contracted polio when he was six, in the 1950s before the Salk vaccine tamed the disease. It left his muscles below his neck useless, and he had to spend most of each day from then on in an iron lung simply to breathe. About four hours was as long as he could live outside the lung. Yet he did not let his condition define or confine him. O’Brien graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with a degree in English Literature and then attended their graduate school for journalism. Besides writing articles, he was also a poet. At first he dictated his work, but then he switched to typing the articles using a stick in his mouth to strike the keys. In the 1980s he was asked to do a piece on the sex lives of the disabled. The article became a personal journey for O’Brien, and it’s the basis for the excellent film, The Sessions.
The movie opens with a news report on the real Mark O’Brien, using a motorized gurney to travel to and from his classes at Berkeley. A few years later, Mark (John Hawkes) is living independently with the assistance of two caregivers. One is a rough and uncaring woman. Mark is a devote Catholic who must work through his feelings with his priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy), before he can fire her. Instead he hires Amanda (Annika Marks), whose lack of experience is made up for by her gentle, caring soul. Mark falls in love with Amanda, but it’s too much for her to handle and she leaves him. To replace her, Mark hires Vera (Moon Bloodgood), who 1) is already in a relationship, and 2) is completely unflappable.
When he’s asked to do the sex life article, Vera pushes Mark’s gurney around town as he interviews others with physical challenges. (The motorized gurney from his college days was lost because of several accidents; as Mark admits in voiceover narration, “I really couldn’t see where I was going.”) Different from most quadriplegics, Mark still has feeling throughout his body and his organ functions. He begins to think about losing his virginity.
His first stop is Father Brendan who, despite his own uncomfortable feelings about the conversation, urges Mark to try to accomplish his goal. A therapist puts Mark in touch with a sexual surrogate who’s trained to help people overcome physical and/or mental problems with sexual intercourse. Cheryl (Helen Hunt) is a middle-aged mother who’s in a long-term relationship with Josh (Adam Arkin). She takes on Mark as a client for six sessions, the proscribed number of times that she can meet with him.
This film could have been a Lifetime TV movie, or it could have become a prurient sexploitation flick. Instead it rises above that to become a meditation on humanity and love, thanks to a literate script by Ben Lewin, who also directed the movie, and a master’s class in acting from Hawkes and Hunt. Lewin keeps the story grounded in reality. He’s helped by excellent work by production designer John Mott and set decorator Sofia Jimenez in creating 1980’s Berkeley.
John Hawkes was an effective supporting actor for twenty-five years on television shows, including a supporting role on “Deadwood,” and in movies like The Perfect Storm. Then came his breakout, Oscar-nominated role as Teardrop in Winter’s Bone, the movie that also made Jennifer Lawrence a star. He continued doing (very good) supporting work in Martha Marcy May Marlene, Contagion, and is currently appearing in Lincoln. As Mark, though, he takes center stage, and he holds it beautifully. He’s the only real competition that Daniel Day Lewis has in the Best Actor Oscar race this year, and if it weren’t for Lincoln he’d be the odds-on favorite to win the award.
Helen Hunt has had a 40 year career, starting as a child actor on television before becoming a lead actress on the small screen with “Mad About You.” That led to movie roles, including her Oscar-winning performance in As Good As If Gets, along with Twister, Pay It Forward, What Women Want, and Castaway. For the past dozen years she’s only done a handful of smaller films. Judging by her work in The Sessions, that’s been our loss. There’s a tendency for reviewers to talk about an actor or actress being “brave” to take on a role that requires a fair amount of nudity, as this one does. In reality it’s more that Hunt is a consummate professional who fully inhabits the character of Cheryl. The times of the greatest intimacy in the movie are actually when the actors are clothed.
Macy is delightful as Father Brendan, and the other supporting roles do just that – provide strong support to the movie. In particular, Jennifer Kumiyama shines as one of the physically-challenged people Mark interviews, who then assists with his sessions with Cheryl. Kumiyama truly embodies Mark O’Brien’s spirit, as she was born with Arthrogryposis (AMC) and doctors told her parents she’d never use her limbs. Since her childhood she’s been proving the doctors wrong, working to improve her mobility and show the ability within her.
Movies characters often casually have sex with each other and then go their separate ways, as if it was just a physical act. The Sessions turns this around, for while the therapy must be kept solely on the physical level, the emotional and spiritual levels intrude. This is a movie that deals with love and intimacy in a deep, multi-faceted way. While Hawkes does an incredible job with the physical embodiment of O’Brien, the greater accomplishment is projecting O’Brien’s beautiful soul to the others in the film, and to the audience. It is both touching and life-affirming, without a trace of saccharine.