Though Ben Lewin’s The Sessions is, at times, a wildly imperfect film, the project has such a strong heart, and features so many moments of sheer cinematic beauty, that I found it impossible not to be moved. This is an uplifting story about an inspirational man, told with passion, grace, and insight. It should not be missed.
John Hawkes, in a performance that shall be recorded in the annals of film history, stars as Mark O’Brien, a poet paralyzed from polio. He only has control over his head, and spends twenty hours a day living in an iron lung. For the three to four hours each day he has out of the lung, he still must lie flat, usually in a gurney, while attendants help him go outside and visit places, like local parks, or a Church where he seeks spiritual guidance from his Priest and friend, Father Brendan (William H. Macy).
Mark is an incredible human being, written and performed with stunning levels of insight and humanity. He lives in a prison of his own body, an existence I can scarcely comprehend, yet his spirit is stronger than most. His poetry is beautiful, and Lewin’s script wisely gives Hawkes copious passages to recite, in speech or narration. Even Mark’s normal speaking style has a graceful, poetic edge to it; with all energy focused to his mind, Mark is a deeply thoughtful man, sometimes to a fault, and there is a poignant, melancholy joy in observing such a fascinating figure.
Hawkes is a revelation in the part, his body gaunt and transformed, his voice expressive and sensitive, his eyes vulnerable and lonely. He resists the temptation roles like this bring to ‘ham’ or overact, favoring subtle, human pathos at every turn, sinking so deeply into the part that we see not an actor, but a character, fully formed and three-dimensional from the start.
At the film’s outset, Mark is 38, beginning to mourn for the many experiences he will never have. Sex is chief among them. Though his body is broken, his libido is not, and he wants nothing more than to feel the touch of a woman, and to touch her in return. With no physical control, Mark thinks he is doomed to die a virgin until he learns of sexual surrogacy, an intensive sex therapy in which the therapist has physical relations with the patient. Through a professional contact, Mark gets in touch with surrogate Cheryl (Helen Hunt), and begins his sexual awakening.
It is reassuring to see filmmakers finally start producing works that deal directly with sex, in frank and meaningful terms, and The Sessions is an outstanding example of why this subject should be discussed, rather than shied away from. Through his sessions with Cheryl, Mark not only experiences pleasures he would never otherwise know, but learns so much more about himself in the process. His insecurities, anxieties, and regrets all come to the surface as he works towards losing his virginity. This isn’t just fantasy for him, but therapy, an experience he desperately needs to become a fuller, happier human being.
Watching Mark work against his limitations is inspirational in obvious ways; if he can find the courage to overcome such physical confines, how can any of us ever complain about our own perceived inadequacies? Yet I was most moved by the film’s exploration of desire, the gradual revelation that Mark lusts not for personal pleasure, but the ability to satisfy another individual. After a life spent being attended to, Mark wants to find someone important he can be there for, sexually or otherwise, and it’s no surprise he latches on to Cheryl. She’s the first person he has ever gotten close to, the first woman with whom he can share in intimacy. That he wishes to please her, instead of worrying solely about himself, is the film’s most uplifting element.
Cheryl herself, however, is one of the more problematic aspects of the film. Helen Hunt is excellent, as fearless as Hawkes in her physicality, but I found it difficult to believe her in the part. She seems a bit too strait-laced and flawless for what, in 1988 at least, would be an extremely bohemian profession. Sexual surrogacy is a thoroughly modern concept, and Hunt blends in too seamlessly with the period to seem like a person who functions so far outside social norms.
The script is also overinvested in her character. We spend too much time watching Cheryl dictate notes on Mark (a rhetorical technique that overanalyzes the themes of the film), or on Cheryl’s home life, where she’s married to a cartoonish buffoon of a husband. This is Mark’s story, not Cheryl’s, and as a character study, it would work best if his point-of-view were never broken. A key element of Mark’s arc is how mysterious he finds Cheryl, how difficult it is for him to understand her emotions or perspective, and that’s a hard aspect to understand when we receive more information on the woman than Mark does.
The film handles their relationship sloppily in the third act, and the ending is surprisingly clunky. The emotions behind the final scenes are palpable and effective, but certain beats and developments are rushed through when they should be lingered on, diluting the power of the finale.
These flaws are impossible to ignore, but what the film does right stands out so spectacularly that I can easily forgive the missteps. Hawkes and Hunt are surrounded be strong supporting performances, particular from Macy and a surprisingly effective Moon Bloodgood, and Marco Beltrami’s subdued score works as a pleasant side character in and of itself. Cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson finds effective ways to photograph a protagonist who is only viewed horizontally, and the story moves along at a comfortable, compelling pace.
The Sessions is a very good film. That it falls just short of greatness should not detract anyone from giving it a chance. It is a truly inspirational work, grounded by a powerful, thought-provoking performance that lingers long after one has left the auditorium. Those are strengths few films, even the truly great ones, can lay claim to, making The Sessions one of the more memorable achievements of 2012.