The Sessions is a sentimental, feel-good romance about pity sex.
Thats not how its pitched, of course. The story of a paralyzed polio victim/journalist (John Hawkes) who engages a sexual surrogate a therapist who teaches him how to have sex by having sex with him is uplifting, a tale of a great soul trapped in a ruined body, about a desperate wish to feel complete and the way this incomplete man completes the women fortunate enough to know him.
But holes in the script leave us with the sense that what were seeing is a woman feeling sorry for the less fortunate, when she isnt being clinical.
Mark OBrien spends his nights in an iron lung and his days coping with a parade of caregivers. Hes a poet, a great profession for somebody who lives inside your head. He managed to graduate from college. He can write, tapping out keys, one at a time, using a stick he holds in his mouth. But he knows that Im always in somebodys way.
And hes all too aware of his own mortality: Im getting close to my use-by date.
His body also is telling him he needs love. He wants to experience it before he dies. And simply declaring his affection to an attractive caregiver is not enough.
William H. Macy plays the hip, understanding long-haired priest (San Francisco, the 80s, go figure) to whom Mark confesses his desires. Marks researching a magazine article about sex and the handicapped. He has some good information. He just wants the priest to give me an advance quote on what that will do to his chances for salvation.
Helen Hunt plays Cheryl, a sexual surrogate women paid to clinically teach and administer hands-on sexual instruction to the disabled.
It all starts with body awareness exercises and ventures onward into Does that hurt? (Not yet.)
Writer-director Ben Lewins film, based on a true story, is a fascinating peek into the sexual difficulties faced by those living in wheelchairs or on gurneys, and their possibilities for sexual fulfillment.
Some of the humor comes from Marks skewed take on his own neediness and his open-sanctuary confessions to his priest (his gurney wont fit in a confessional). The rest comes from Moon Bloodgood, playing a droll, no-nonsense caregiver who treats Marks needs and his clinical solutions to them (a hotel room is required) so matter-of-factly that her every conversation with the desk clerk is a laugh.
Hunt, a wonderful, under-used Oscar winner, has a gift for tugging at the heartstrings. Its a guarded performance, despite the nudity the role entails. She gives Cheryl this little facial twitch whenever she senses Brian is developing feelings, and she gives filmgoers a misty-eyed moment when we sense she is developing feelings herself.
Hawkes, who burst on the scene with riveting/ menacing turns in Winters Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene, makes Mark lonely without being sad, severely restricted but with a hint of playfulness about him. Playing such a character can feel like a stunt, but Hawkes never loses the guys humanity.
Whats missing in Lewins film is a greater appreciation of OBriens charms, the writing and sensitivity that draws women to him. We catch a hint of it, but only a hint. Without more of his writing and beguiling wit, were left with his earnestness, his eagerness to lose his virginity and the misty-eyed reactions of women around him to this need.
And as touching as The Sessions can sometimes be, this engaging film never transcends that feeling that whats going on here is therapeutic and clinically erotic, but never really romantic.