Written and Directed by Ben Lewin
Starring John Hawkes, Helen Hunt and William H. Macy
Mark O’Brien: I’m definitely a believer but I believe in a god with a sense of humour, a wicked sense of humoour, one that created me in his own image.
Perhaps I’m just not as open as I like to think I am, or perhaps I should consider myself fortunate that I have not yet required such services, but up until seeing THE SESSIONS, I had no real idea that sexual surrogacy existed, let alone what it was. Now, I know that sexual surrogates, more often than not, women, are therapists with backgrounds in sexuality who assist their patients with sexual obstacles, by listening to them, communicating clearly with them and, as it turns out, demonstrating their lessons physically with their patients. In that sense, it’s like therapy with a happy ending, I guess. In reality though, it is so much more than that, as is proven by the true story of Mark O’Brien.
O’Brien (played on screen in a fiercely fearless portayal by John Hawkes) was a poet and at 38 years old, he had yet to experience one of the most inspirational activities God ever gave us, sex. It’s not that the perfect moment never presented itself for O’Brien but rather he had some seemingly insurmountable obstacles to get past in order to get anywhere under the sheets. First of all, his sheets aren’t even on a bed; they are inside an iron lung, where O’Brien spends the majority of his time. At the age of 6, he contracted polio, went on to lose most of his muscular functions and cannot spend more than three hours outside the iron lung. He grew into a well-adjusted adult male and even went on to earn a university degree despite only being able to type using a stick gripped between his teeth to hit keys. Sexual intimacy has always eluded him though and, after falling for one of his attendants, he decides he should be prepared in case that fateful moment should ever arise again.
O’Brien chronicled his sexual awakening in an article that was published at the time and has now formed the basis for THE SESSIONS screenplay, written by Ben Lewin. Lewin also directs, which is the film’s only real weakness. While Lewin coaches incredible performances out of his leads, including Helen Hunt as the surrogate herself and William H. Macy, as O’Brien’s confidant (and parish priest), his visual style is a little static for my taste. There is a lot of talking in THE SESSIONS, which, is necessary considering the action from the lead is rather limited, but at times this stunts the film somewhat. Fortunately though, what is being discussed is simply fascinating and the emotional impact of what is taking place is subtly slipped in amidst these brave performances. In a world where sex has become so transactional on so many levels, it is reassuring to see that feeling can still play a part even when money is deliberately exchanging hands.