‘The Sessions’ (2012) Movie Review

Helen Hunt and John Hawkes in The Sessions
Helen Hunt and John Hawkes in The Sessions
Photo: Fox Searchlight

One of the most difficult things about a film such as The Sessions is the director’s need to help the audience forget the lead character has a disability. Or, at the very least, get them to connect with the character to the point compassion is felt for them as a human, not as a human with a disability. This need goes to the heart of The Sessions and its execution is directly relatable to how good this film is, as John Hawkes plays Mark O’Brien, a man whom has been confined to an iron lung for most of his life.

Mark must forget his disability and do his best to realize his condition doesn’t stop him from being eligible for everything it means to be human. Mark may be disabled, but he has a heart, feelings and love to give and writer/director Ben Lewin has crafted a story that crawls into your heart and holds on tight and it’s so perfectly performed it’s destined to earn at least two Oscar nominations for its leads, if not go home with a pair of wins.

The Sessions is based on Mark O’Brien‘s autobiographical writings. Despite being confined to an iron lung, only able to move his head slightly while the rest of his body is paralyzed, O’Brien was a California-based journalist and poet. We are greeted to a vintage news story on the real Mark O’Brien, graduating from Cal and serving as a clear inspiration for others to live life to the fullest, but Mark’s story doesn’t end there.

The film begins in 1988, in Berkley, California, where we immediately warm to Mark. His current caregiver is his most recent cause for distress, but a confession to his new priest (William H. Macy) gives him the comfort and justification he needs to fire her. This story, though, is about a grander issue we all face, and one that makes connecting with Mark even easier. Love.

Assigned an article exploring the love lives of disabled people in the Berkley area, Mark soon begins to focus on the fact he is 38-years-old and still a virgin. While he is essentially paralyzed from the neck down (he describes it saying his muscles don’t work right), he still has feeling in his extremities and can perform sexually. As a result he is introduced to the idea of a sexual surrogate, a sex therapist that has sexual intercourse with their client as a method of therapy.

Mark confides once again in his priest, knowing sex outside of marriage is frowned upon and yet explains how sex is the most persistent theme throughout the Bible and that he only wants to get to “know a woman in the Biblical sense.” This is Mark, he’s sharp, witty, funny and a man impossible not to grow instantly attached to. He gets his priest’s blessing… enter Cheryl (Helen Hunt).

As hard as this setup may be to believe, Lewin’s screenplay does an excellent job of introducing the audience to how a sexual surrogate works. As Cheryl is comforting Mark, she is also setting the audience at ease. She lets Mark know how things will proceed and not to be scared. While it would be easy to say what she’s doing is nothing more than therapeutic prostitution, watching as the story progresses, it becomes quite clear her services are very much helping.

The time Cheryl and Mark share is amazing in its effect on both Mark, Cheryl and our emotions. The Sessions presents a picture of love and it does it in both physical and emotional ways. It’s an exploration into what makes us as human beings whole. While watching, I took down a handful of notes, but one stands out more than the rest… “Fill your cup.”

Mark was close to calling off his sessions with Cheryl before they ever started, as members of the audience just as unfamiliar and a bit frightened to see how it all works, we understand. As the sessions progress we’re with him every step of the way, his fear, anxiety, embarrassment and joy are all felt as Hawkes and Hunt give a pair of performances that very well may be the best of the year.

It’s often looked at as Oscar bait when an actor plays someone disabled, but here the goal, like I said, is to not look at Mark as disabled, but to look at him as a human and Hawkes’ performance accomplishes that goal and then some. Instead of looking at him as a man confined to an iron lung, he’s a man with an obstacle in front of him and one we want to see him conquer.

As for Helen Hunt, her performance is masterful. I don’t even know where to begin to express my praise, but I can’t not mention a late scene in the picture where her character can’t help but let her emotions out even though she is doing everything she can to hold them in. If there was a dry eye in the house, that moment broke the levees as it was delivered with such absolute authenticity. It’s a moment that couldn’t have been achieved without the performances from both actors up to that point, but Hunt certainly seizes the opportunity.

The supporting cast is also quite good with Moon Bloodgood playing Vera, Mark’s primary caregiver, and William H. Macy‘s performance as his priest and eventual friend. Annika Marks deserves some attention as well as one of Mark’s caregivers and a character that originally sends Mark down the path his journey eventually follows.

My praise for what Ben Lewin has put together here couldn’t be higher, but the content may be hard for some to deal with at times. The Sessions isn’t shy of tackling sex head on and without restraint and for some that may be hard to deal with. However, Lewin is honest with his intentions just as his characters are. He not only crafted a screenplay that manages to touch on the basic need of every human being to be loved, he did it with a character who most often would be looked at as a victim and turned him into a hero.

The Sessions is as uplifting as it is emotionally crushing. Audiences may weep as they walk out of the theater, but they’d be hard-pressed to look back at the brief moments of Mark O’Brien’s life and say he wasn’t a man that didn’t fill his cup. In fact, his cup overfloweth.

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