'The Sessions': A Different Kind of Adult Film
"The Sessions" is an almost entirely commendable movie about human loneliness, the need for connection and the part(s) that sex and/or love, and sometimes both intertwined, play in realizing said connection. It boasts a pair of exquisitely sensitive and fully inhabited performances by John Hawkes and Helen Hunt, playing what not a few people in the audience might consider a somewhat odd couple. Hawkes plays Mark O'Brien, a poet and journalist who's spent much of his life confined to an iron lung as the result of childhood polio. Effectively paralyzed but still able to feel sensations, he's never been physically intimate with a woman, and as he approaches his late 30s, he fears he never will be. Hunt plays Cheryl Cohen Greene, a married therapist whose work includes sexual surrogacy.
The movie is based on the true story of O'Brien's later life. It begins with a look at O'Brien's daily routine, the way in the dead of night how a brush of his cat's tail against his nose creates an itch he cannot scratch. Hawkes, who contorts and distorts both his body and his voice for the role, gives a vivid sense of how this clearly highly intelligent and decent guy copes with a situation that many of us would find intolerable even to contemplate. O'Brien's a deeply religious Catholic, and soon we find him seeking the advice of a new parish priest, played by a long-haired William H. Macy (the movie is set in the late '80s, when such tonsorial stylings among the clergy, particularly the Marin County clergy, were commonplace). Not exactly a hip priest, Macy's character is compassionate and sane enough to sanction O'Brien's foray into "fornication" without marriage after O'Brien learns of the option while researching a magazine article about sex and the disabled.
What follows, then, are the titular sessions, which are intercut with O'Brien's recounting of them to his father confessor (and these, thank the Lord, are not nearly as cloyingly cutesy as they've been made to look in the movie's television commercials and trailers) and his interactions with the others in his life. Also explored are Cheryl's own dealings in her house, including her notes about O'Brien's case and dry, and eventually not so dry, talks with her "philosopher" husband, played by Adam Arkin.
O'Brien's intimidation and eventual wonder at the joys of sex, and the dredging up of his past heartaches, some relatively recent, lead to an entirely predictable clinical result almost right away: transference. Cheryl understands that suddenly Mark sees her as "mother, sister, lover, teacher, best friend." The viewer infers that this is one reason that sex surrogates choose, or are obliged to, limit the actual number of sessions they participate in. In Cheryl's case it's six. Trouble is that Cheryl is deeply moved by Mark herself. O'Brien's words -- adapted by screenwriter and director Ben Lewin -- and Hawkes' performance make the situation entirely believable.
The movie is neither short of, nor in the least bit coy about, sex and sex talk. It treats and presents both in a way that is entirely candid, frank and straightforward, but never crass. In other words, it's entirely, sanely adult, and I cannot overemphasize how much of a miracle that is for an American motion picture made in this year of our Lord. My only quibble, then, is an entirely subjective aesthetic one. While I find "The Sessions" refreshingly adult, I also thought it a bit on the prosaic side, quietly reliant at times on certain aural and visual tropes that convey sentiment rather than poetry. I'm not asking for Terrence Malick here, but ... hmm, maybe I am asking for Terrence Malick. Hell, I'm just trying to be honest here. It's a quality that "The Sessions" itself commends.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.