Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) is completely paralyzed, his body was afflicted by severe polio at a young age and he lives inside an iron lung that helps him breathe.However, he retains all his five senses, and has a sixth one too. His face is very mobile and so is his penis.He was born and raised a Catholic and goes to church regularly.He has a picture of the Virgin Mary on his wall staring down at him and another postcard of her stuck to his metallic home.He is a poet and a college graduate.We see the video of his college graduation ceremony, he wheels himself in on an automated gurney to a standing ovation, an event covered by the local cable news.He is a small time celebrity with a big erection.
That’s the basic set up of this true story about a severely disabled man’s quest to find sexual fulfilment. He falls in love with his nurse,Amanda, after firing one that he does not like.This one is beautiful, sensitive and funny.Amanda cares for him tenderly and laughs at his jokes.One day he tells her that he loves her.She is shocked, perhaps to be confronted by the knowledge that she loves him too, but having a relationship with a guy like him will be a burden too much to bear.She leaves.Mark is frustrated.He tells his pastor, Father Brendan that he wants to have sex.William H Macy, with a mane of flowing hair and darting blue eyes is not the average priest. He knows Mark is special and treats him as such.He tells him to go for it (off the record,of course), even though fornication outside marriage is not exactly kosher.
Mark hires a sex surrogate on the advise of his sex therapist.She arrives.He thinks he knows the drill and before they start tells her the money is on the table. But oops, she is not a prostitute.She is a sex surrogate therapist, we will soon know the difference.Cheryl played by Helen Hunt is a professional.Its her job to set peoples sex life straight.Not by talking down to a body on a couch but by getting down and dirty.It must be a fascinating profession, or maybe its just another job.We see her making notes at home after each session.She has a family, a husband who adores her for what she does, he calls her a saint.She has a teenaged son too.Whether he knows what his mom does for a living we do not know, but I suspect he has been told.His parents are grown up people in a very special way.
A little note on sex surrogate therapists is in order here.They are professionals who are trained to work with people having difficulties in handling the physical aspects of sexuality. They work in conjugation with psychotherapists and it does involve sex along with teaching the patients a lot of things about their bodies.Its a profession in decline because of the stigma attached to it and for fear of HIV.
The key difference between a prostitute and a sex surrogate as Cheryl explains to Mark is that there is a limit to the number of sessions that they can have while a prostitute will be happy to keep on servicing a satisfied client indefinitely, in exchange for money.What happens during these sessions between Mark and Cherly, I will not describe. Not that I am shy or anything, but why spoil the fun.I use the word fun judiciously, because its far too easy to get solemn about disabled people, and we tend to overdo the respect part, to their detriment.Suffice it to say that there is plenty of pain and plenty of emotions on this ride.The director Ben Lewin cross cuts the sex therapy session with confessions in the church and pulls the “Thou shall not fuck” rug from under the feet of a good many holier than thou people.Mark tells his priest he wants to “know a woman in the Biblical sense”.
Mark O’Brien at one point says he wants to have real sex because he wants to write about it.It will make a good story, because sex sells.If Ben Lewin made this film for the same reason, so be it.He tells a good story very well, supported by first class performances. The nudity in this film is strangely cold, but the warmth of emotions is genuine.The Sessions handles the issues surrounding sex, love and “sexual love” with a directness that is refreshing.There is not one shy character in this film.
Mark O’Brien must have been an amazing man, a poem he composes expressing his emotions is sublime and reason enough to watch this film.In his first confession he tells Father Brendan that while his caregivers are bathing him he gets erections and sometimes ejaculates. All he feels then is shame.This very shame has been dealt with in a searing film called Shame by Steve McQueen.In that film the protagonist was an alpha male, addicted to sex in a very unhealthy way,and all he felt at the end of every vigorous session was shame.
Mark overcomes his shame to experience joy within his broken body and that sets him free to even experience love.The Sessions takes a very unlikely story and tells it with a lot of compassion and humor, taking down religious dogma along the way.He gives us people who are deeply religious and recognize that if indeed God made the sexual apparatus we are born with, it must be to be for frequent use and not just to be pulled out of the cupboard to make babies.
Governments, acting under pressure from a liberal young electorate, are at war with religions, on matters of homosexuality and contraception. God-men are fast losing their grip on the bodies of their followers.Our minds must follow.
Watch The Sessions, its Hot! ( just like my red shoes..)
Anachronisms: The film takes place circa 1988. Helen Hunt wears several Wacoal bras that are contemporary to 2011, including “Embrace Lace Underwire” bra style #65191.
Ha ha ha!!
#The Session is currently showing in Singapore and is rated R21.Its a film for grown ups with important lessons for the young.