The Sessions (2012), which has great performances at its center, is extra powerful because of its decency. This is a movie about goodness, about love and strength, but about individual morality, individual goodness. It’s natural that a film like this should make us feel good too (and it does), but it does more than that, it makes us feel better.
The movie stars John Hawkes as Mark O’Brien, a middle-aged man who was born with polio and Catholicism, two conditions that can be quite restrictive. The disease left him with feeling everywhere, but motor skills only in his neck and head, and the religion left him with a sense of humor, a perception of the world that informs his work (he’s a poet) and, as he puts it, someone to blame. The movie does a good job right off the bat to establish the extreme limits of not being able to move your hands or your body. It’s hard enough to imagine not being able to walk or play football or feed yourself, but, as a cat brushes its tail against Mark’s face at the beginning of the movie and he is forced to “think” the itch away, it makes you acutely aware of all the little times you use your motor skills without thinking about it. Mark sleeps in an iron lung that breathes for him, though he can go three or four hours without it. He types and makes phone calls with a wand. He has two caretakers for his physical health: Rod (W. Earl Brown) and Vera (Moon Bloodgood); one for his spiritual health, Father Brendan (William H. Macy); and now, one for his sexual health, a very particular type of therapist named Cheryl, played by Helen Hunt.
Mark is assigned to write a story about sex among the disabled, and as he begins, he discovers he is a little out of his depth. He’s pushing 40 and he’s never had sex. He goes to Father Brendan about it, who, presumably a virgin himself, can empathize but not offer much practical advice. Mark fell in love with a previous caretaker but she didn’t reciprocate his feelings, at least not physically, and he figures with his set of issues, it’s unlikely he’ll be able to attract a mate. He learns of a service where, for a fee, a surrogate has sex with a patient to help them discover their sexuality, sort of how a physical therapist works with muscles to teach patients to use them properly. It sounds like prostitution to Father Brendan but, sensing a member of his flock in real need, assures Mark that God “will give you a free pass on this one.” The therapist is Cheryl, who clinically and professionally shows Mark how to have sex until they gradually begin making love.
As Mark falls for Cheryl and vice versa, the movie cuts between their sessions together and Mark’s conversations with Father Brendan, who listens in rapt attention as his friend finds happiness. Cheryl explains the difference between herself and a hooker, much to Father Brendan’s relief I’m sure: A prostitute is hoping to find a long-term client, but Mark gets only six sessions with Cheryl, at the end of which he should be able to apply what he’s learned on his own. This is a precise and delicate performance by Hunt, who has to mix professionalism (much of what she does, especially at first, is explain to Mark how his body, particularly unused in that area, works and how it will work in relation to her own) with easy and gentle charm (because after explaining his body, she must also elicit the right response from Mark).
On the surface this is lurid material, but Ben Lewin, who writes and directs, handles it frankly, and the sex, of which there is a lot, is earnest, imperfect but never cheap. Lewin immediately defines what’s going on and what isn’t, and it makes the movie the sympathetic inspiration it is. This isn’t about a man who wants to get laid but about a man who wants to feel a little closer to a normalcy that social mores in relation to his condition have denied him. He simply has the basic human need for physical contact. Far from being treated by a scuzzy nymphomaniac, he is being cared for by a woman with a particular skill, one that makes people happy without compromising her own dignity. I was reminded of a scene in Poetry (2011) in which sex is used as a gift so easily given and with such a boon to the self-worth of the receiver that the circumstances, shocking out of context, defy traditional morality. The Sessions has a similar love for the people in it; it’s compassionate and gentle, carnal with grace not animalism.
The greatest contributor to this, more than Lewin or even Hunt, is Hawkes, who plays a man who never for a moment is pathetic but always tied to his condition. He’s funny and thoughtful but can hardly be divorced from his body, though he displays too much life to be pitiful. It’s a remarkable physical performance for a man who in movies such asMartha Marcy May Marlene (2011) and Winter’s Bone (2010) shows a terrifying menace and physical strength, that he can display such vulnerability here. He’s still very much a physical presence, but he disappears behind the wrinkles, strains and angles of a life spent on a gurney or in a machine that keeps him alive.
If the movie has a flaw it’s in its simplicity. I was just complaining about This Is 40 (2012) spending too much time away from its main characters and this one does not spend enough. The three main secondary characters all have the potential for fascinating explorations but none is fully paid off. It’s hinted that Vera the caretaker is letting her fierce devotion to Mark get in the way of her personal life but that isn’t resolved. Even more potential can be found in Josh (Adam Arkin), Cheryl’s husband, but the movie uses him only to stir up opposition. More than anything, I wanted to know more about Father Brendan’s opinion on Mark’s odyssey, which already involves premarital sex that also turns out to be, strictly speaking, adultery. After the made-for-the-trailer line about God’s “free pass,” Father Brendan becomes more of a bartender than a priest, listening dutifully but not framing what he hears in any meaningful religious way.
The story and the people in it are a little too perfect, as if they were straight out of the factory for heart-warming tales; it’s not manipulative but it’s clear Lewin wants you to go right where he’s leading you. Still, I liked the movie’s sly suggestion that Mark, despite his obvious physical deficiencies, is a little bit of a Lothario, eliciting two jealous reactions from men. Perhaps the best sequence in the movie is one in which the Mikvah ceremony (Cheryl is converting to Judaism) is equated to the service she has provided to Mark and herself.