Without intent to offend you, I say that physical love is a most necessary element to a healthy life. Sex in all its varied methods and emotions falls easily into that category, but it is, in its purest form, a consummation of physical affection. And so to consider 40 years without it, without knowing physical touch beyond the clinical scrubbing of your atrophied body, is to know a despair borne only by the truly forsaken. Thankfully, The Sessions has a great sense of humor about it. It is one of the most kind-hearted and beautiful movies you will have the pleasure to see.
Mark O’Brien was a real life poet and journalist who lived in San Francisco from 1949-1999. At the age of 6, he contracted polio, which left him confined to an iron lung for the remainder of his life. Not paralyzed per se but with “muscles that don’t work too good,” Mark was able to spend 3-4 hours of his day outside of his lung, wheeled along in a portable bed with the aid of a respirator and of course a nurse. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Mark’s condition prevented him from experiencing even the potential for intimacy that so many of us take for granted. By the age of 41, he was still a virgin, and lonely to boot.
The Sessions dramatizes Mark’s experiences with a “sex surrogate,” a very specific physical therapist who specializes in sexual intimacy with the handicapped. As Cheryl (Helen Hunt) explains to Mark, a surrogate is not a prostitute. True, her distinctions are based on principles rather than practicalities, but that haziness is very much a factor in Mark’s moral struggle.
Mark is played by the terrific John Hawkes. Self-deprecating, witty, and endearing, Hawkes charms even though he can move little more than his neck and mouth. He is by no means a saint and freely pities himself, but his humor and vulnerability elevate his performance far above his static posture. Helen Hunt is his surrogate Cheryl, and in addition to being fearlessly naked on camera, she offers a strikingly complex character that is much, much more than what little we are told and shown. She and Hawkes share a chemistry that is bumpy and human and sad.
Rounding out the cast are a delightful collection of supporting roles, including Mark’s male and female nurses, as well as William H. Macy as Mark’s priest, a man that cautiously supports his employment of the surrogate but who finds his faith tested the deeper his friendship with Mark grows.
Mark is a devout Catholic, who jokes that he can only endure his condition by having someone to blame for it all. And yet he truly is a believer. The Sessions is a revolving series of conversations between Mark and his nurses, Mark and his priest, and Mark and Cheryl, that never drags. The film is frank with its depiction of sex, in both humorous and melancholy ways, but gradually reveals itself to be a tragicomic meditation on the disabled justice that pervades our lives. Mark is a man that touches the lives of several women precisely because of his disability. Without his emaciated body he could have a chance at the life and affection shared by everyone around him. And yet without his emaciated body, he would not be the man he is, San Francisco’s Mark O’Brien.
A prostitute wants repeat business, a surrogate only offers six sessions. Though the sessions leave him feeling “cleansed and victorious,” it is impossible for Mark to know such affection without falling in love. And for Cheryl, not only is that unprofessional, she cannot help reciprocating.
Mark O’Brien died at the age of 49 and the film ends with him narrating his own funeral. Most poignant are the final two shots of the film, the one of Mark’s casket and then the final image of his iron lung, quiet without him inside it. For a man who spent most of his life in a casket, he lived as well as he could, as beautifully as he was able. Was it a fair life, and was it part of God’s plan? Not the questions for a mere movie reviewer to answer.
I can only answer the one question, that being: Is it a good film? It’s wonderful, it’s funny. If Jesus made a film, I like to think he’d make a film like this.
Based on Mark O’Brien’s article, “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate”
The Sessions (2012)
Directed by Ben Lewin
Fox Searchlight Pictures
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