The Sessions is the kind of film that could easily be brushed aside, given the premise. You could boil it down to its basic parts: a crippled man meets someone new and overcomes some sort of adversity, and just think of it as plain Oscar bait. There is also the chance that someone could find the idea with a punchline set up pretty easily: A cripple, a catholic priest, and a sex surrogate walk into a bar, and so on. Fortunately, The Sessions does have more to offer, as it is a very likable film, with wonderful performances coming from all of the actors involved. It is still a movie ‘inspired by a true story’ and does follow the sort of plot structure that would be expected, but it gets by do to its strength in other areas.
Cheryl: Shall we get undressed?
The story is fairly simple. John Hawkes stars as Mark O’Brien, a journalist and poet who has been paralyzed from the neck down by polio since his childhood. He survives due to the support of an iron lung, which he spends the majority of his time inside, but he does get to venture out for several hours a day. At 38 years old, after consulting a priest (played by William H. Macy), Mark decides it is time for him to try and lose his virginity. He hires a professional sex surrogate, Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Helen Hunt), who is skilled enough to have Mark not only work to accomplish his goal, but open up in other ways as well.
This film is very much based on a true story. Mark O’Brien’s life was even chronicled previously in the Academy Award-winning documentary short, Breathing Lessons. This film is focused on a more particular part of his life, as it involves a very specific life goal he had, which is certainly not portrayed in a raunchy sort of way (however, a raunchy sex comedy about a man with paralysis due to polio may be just the kind of film to really shake up Hollywood), but does allow the film to, rather frankly, present sex as the main topic of discussion. It is also about how Mark, regardless of his handicap, is still able to have an effect on the women in his life.
Mark has three major relationships shown in this film. One is Amanda (Annika Marks), who serves as a caretaker for Mark, briefly, until it becomes too uncomfortable when Mark falls in love with her and she is fairly conflicted herself. Another is his working relationship with the woman who would serve as his main caretaker, Vera (Moon Bloodgood, downplaying her looks for the sake of a role). Vera has a neat relationship with Mark, as she is caring, but also direct with him. She does not try to be his best friend necessarily, but she is someone who will give him a push to do things he may be nervous about. Bloodgood is very good in a role that allows her to underplay a character who is still important to the story overall.
The last and most important female for Mark in this film is Cheryl. I found it noticeable that Helen Hunt looked rather good when first being introduced in this film and then I found out why. Hunt’s character, the sex surrogate, requires her to bare all for the role and she does so in a very matter-of-fact manner that really emphasizes that the film is overt in how it portrays sex, but not one that needs to linger on it. Instead, while Hunt may go all out for the role, the focus is on her attitude and how she effects and is effected by her sessions with Mark. Cheryl establishes early on that Mark will have a limited number of sessions with Mark and as the film goes on, it is very evident as to why. Along with teaching Mark how to feel, there is what could be considered collateral damage in participating in an experience that has powerful emotions so closely associated with it. The film takes Hunt through quite the journey because of this, which is reflected very well with how strong her work as an actress in this film is.
This all, of course, leads to what I have to say about John Hawkes. Well, after delving into much darker (but very well received) territory with films like Winter’s Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene, Hawkes is allowed to be a character who is actually really funny and full of life. Given the position Mark has been put in, I guess it is only fitting that he is that way. Sure we see plenty of pathos in the character and come to understand the emotional toil he is being put through, but the movie does manage to shine based on the comedy that does come through, thanks to Hawkes work at making Mark likable to us and lovable to all the women I have already mentioned. It would be easy to make this seem like a performance that screams, “Give me an Oscar!” but Hawkes does a much better job at making this performance feel real and grounded.
Where the movie suffers is in its lack to really have much else to offer. The narrative is pretty straight-forward, with little drive beyond whether or not Mark can get laid and how good he can get at doing it. The performances do make the film worth it for sure, but with such a limited scope and an ending that is a mix of inevitable (to an extent) and incredibly abrupt, it felt more and more like there was not a whole lot to work with in getting a fully formed film here. This could explain the entire presence of William H. Macy’s character. Macy is great, as always, and his scenes with Mark are a lot of fun, but he could easily be jettisoned and the film would not suffer, beyond having a much shorter running time.
I guess that whole last bit may have sounded kind of harsh, but really, for a film like The Sessions to come out and have the air of a film that is calling attention to itself, awards-wise, it really does not feel like that kind of film (for the record, I do not blame the film itself for this). It is a well-acted piece of work for sure, which happens to be based on a true story, but the attitude of the film and its overall structure make it feel more like a nice tribute to this man who was able to achieve many things in a challenging life, as opposed to one that needs prestigious acclaim from all over. I certainly recommend The Sessions, but because it’s nice entertainment, given its subject matter.
Cheryl: I don’t usually meet with clients outside of work.
Mark: We don’t have to do much talking, I just wanted people to say, “Hey, who’s that gimp with that beautiful blond?”