Director: Ben Lewin (2012)
Based on the true story of Mark O’Brien, a poet trapped in an iron lung after polio left him paralyzed from the neck down, and his decision to lose his virginity, The Sessions is an undeniably affecting film.
At the age of 38, Mark has never felt the hands of a woman, other than those of his caretakers during a less than erotic sponge bath, and has never been naked in a room at the same time as someone else. Things that a lot of us will take for granted every day but for Mark, after his kindness is rejected once again, he has reached his limit and decides it is time to force himself into a sexual awakening – now or never.
But when your movement is almost entirely dependent on someone else, or a stick in your mouth, and you are confined to either an iron box or a gurney on wheels, seduction is going to have its limits. Thankfully, Mark is introduced to a ‘sex surrogate’, a trained sex therapist available to initiate people into the sexual world, whatever their ability, or in Mark’s case – disability.
Cheryl Cohen-Greene is one of the few registered sex surrogates in the States, a caring and open woman, whose compassion but gentle forcefulness allows her and Mark to create a tender relationship, and eventually, intimate partnership. Limited to only six ‘sessions’ Mark and Cheryl work together to allow Mark to become aware of his body, a body that has betrayed him since he was a child. But it is not just Mark who receives the awakening.
Raised a Catholic, Mark seeks solace in religion – as he says himself, he needs someone to blame for the way he is! – developing a friendship with Father Brendan (William H Macy). At the top of the aisle, Jesus statue watching from above, Mark lies in his gurney, confessing his sins to his Father. Initially taken aback that Mark is asking permission to fornicate outside the marital bed, Father Brendan soon realises that God would probably grant him a free pass on this one, giving him approval as a friend and a Father. These lightly comedic interludes as Mark keeps Father Brendan up to date with his progress piece together the experiences we see in the bedroom and the restorative affect this journey is having on Mark.
Physically transformed, John Hawkes delivers an astounding performance as Mark, contorting his body to that of a polio sufferer while simultaneously capturing the infectious wit and hopefulness that made him so desirable to the many beautiful women in his life – difficult as actualising these feelings may be. Helen Hunt embraces the ethos of Cheryl, full frontal in her approach to both the nudity and the struggles maintaining the delicate balance between close and too close with her patients.
Just as it is in their bedroom, The Sessions belongs to Hunt and Hawkes, producing overwhelmingly powerful and mature portrayals of what is essentially a relationship none of us will ever be able to even begin to understand. Inspiring and empathetic throughout, The Sessions captures the strength and resilience of one man and his desire to succeed, reminding us that love can come in many forms.