The Sessions, written and directed by Ben Lewin, sounds like it could be the Cinemax version of a disease-of-the-week movie: a man who can only move his head and spends most of his day in an iron lung hires a sex surrogate so he can lose his virginity. Happily, the movie is much better than the premise, mostly due to a script that veers away from sentimentality (except at the end) and a performance by John Hawkes.
It is a testament to Hawkes that I find it impossible to believe it could be the same man who plays the menacing meth-dealer in Winter’s Bone who plays the gentle, romantic poet in The Sessions, but there it is. According to the credits it’s Hawkes who plays Mark O’Brien, a man stricken by polio as a child, who lacks muscle control (he is not paralyzed). He makes his living as a poet and journalist, typing out one letter at a time on a typewriter with a stick held tightly in his teeth.
When Hawkes hires a young woman as an attendant, he is stirred by passion. He falls in love with her, but while she loves him, she can’t love him “in that way.” He seeks guidance from his priest, and fortunately he has found the most liberal priest in America. He’s played by William H. Macy, and you can tell he’s forward thinking because he has long hair and wears a leather jacket.
Macy, after hemming and hawing a bit, gives Hawkes his blessing to see a sex surrogate, played by Helen Hunt. I would have gone to a hooker (Hunt explains that the main difference is that she caps her number of sessions at six to preclude romantic attachment) but O’Brien’s Catholic guilt is enough that he has to do things the legal way. After a rocky start, including several premature ejaculations, Hawkes and Hunt start to develop feelings for each other.
There’s a lot to like here. For one thing, I could easily empathize with Hawkes, who plays O’Brien as a dreamy romantic who has a hard time separating sex from love–he’s bound to fall in love with any woman who will climb naked into bed with him. I think a lot of men feel like he does every day–and they aren’t disabled. The emotions are so honestly and humorously expressed that the film charms you, even if you are a jaded cineaste who refuses to believe that a movie like this could possibly be any good.
Some of it is too good to be true–it’s based on a true story (O’Brien was the subject of an Oscar-winning documentary) but I wonder how many rough edges have been smoothed over. Hunt, who gives a good if not spectacular performance, is at first extremely professional, but starts to lose her objectivity, even allowing herself to orgasm with Hawkes. Since the movie is from Hawkes’ point of view, it plays into the common male fantasy of being so wonderful that even sex workers can’t resist falling in love with him.
I also found Macy’s priest too good to be true. I’m not Catholic, and I suppose it’s refreshing to see a priest character who isn’t a drunk or a pedophile (though we do see Macy toting a six-pack), but he’s seems like a different kind of fantasy–a non-judgemental clergyman. I wonder what Barry Fitzgerald in Going My Way would have thought.
My grade for The Sessions: B+.