Published Sep 07, 2012Not all itches can be scratched with the mind, especially when that itch is the need for human contact. Based on an article recounting his late-blooming sexual life, The Sessions refers to the time severe polio sufferer Mark O'Brien spent working with a professional sex surrogate to gain understanding and a measure of control over his complex intimacy issues.
O'Brien spends most of his life confined to an iron lung and travels by gurney, unable to move any muscles below his neck. In spite of his lamentable allotment, Mark has a wonderful, gently sardonic sense of humour and resolute faith in God, since, displaying the former while explaining the later, he "finds it absolutely intolerable to not have someone to blame for all this."
Despite being intelligent, charming and a romantic wordsmith (he's a professional poet), his condition tends to relegate him to the role of adorable, but sexually unviable in the eyes of women. With an off-the-record endorsement from his priest (William H. Macy) and the encouragement of his attendant (Moon Bloodgood, finally demonstrating a bit of range), Mark contacts Cheryl Cohen Green (Helen Hunt) out of fear that he'll die a virgin.
John Hawkes (Winter's Bone, Deadwood) is going to be an obvious frontrunner come Oscar time for his portrayal of the sexually frustrated and shame-filled, but always frank, insightful and droll O'Brien. To a lesser degree, Helen Hunt gives a brave performance that calls for a lot of graphic intimacy, though it's hard to tell if her roving Boston accent is meant to be a layer of performance Cheryl is attempting to use to make Mark feel more comfortable or if the actress is slipping up and director Ben Lewin didn't want to press the issue.
Lewin's mostly television and documentary experience shows in his style, or lack thereof, letting the performances do the majority of the talking and consigning all side characters to cipher status. As Cheryl points out when Mark asks for details about her personal life, the therapy is all about him, and so is this movie. Still, it would have given a more rounded perspective to know a bit more about how this extraordinary man affected the people around him.
Despite some awkward cinematic syntax, The Sessions is a worthwhile look at the emotional and physical needs that live inside each person, despite their outward constraints. (Searchlight)