Among living actresses, the list of those who have won two Academy Awards for Best Actress is a short one. It includes Glenda Jackson, Sally Field, Jane Fonda, Jodie Foster, Hillary Swank and now Meryl Streep.
The Sessions may be the film that adds another name to that distinguished list, as Helen Hunt is radiantly brilliant as Cheryl, the sexual surrogate who works to help the late Mark O’Brien, played by John Hawkes (best known for his role as “Bugsy” in The Perfect Storm).
O’Brien, who died in 1999 at the age of 49, contracted polio at the age of 6 and although not paralyzed, ended up living most of his life inside of an iron lung. His muscles were simply too weak to allow him to move. He attended UC Berkeley on a motorized gurney, had assistants caring for him and was a successful poet and writer. But he longed for human contact, particularly with a woman, and when the chance came to write an article on sex and the disabled, it was the perfect confluence of opportunity and need uniting to fulfill his desires. Especially since he had confessed that he loved Amanda (Annika Marks), one of his caretakers, and even proposed marriage to her.
She had simply quit and left in response.
He went to see a therapist who referred him to a sexual surrogate named Cheryl. There were (and are to this day) rules about seeing sexual surrogates. The number of sessions is limited to six, and since Mark’s bedroom had only the iron lung in it, he needed to arrange to meet with Cheryl elsewhere. His assistants, Vera (Moon Bloodgood) and Rod (W. Earl Brown) were happy to wheel him to these assignations on his gurney, since he was no longer allowed to use the motorized version.
Before seeing her for the first time, he seeks guidance about the concept of sex outside of marriage from his Priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy), who tells him that he thinks he should go for it. The discussions between Mark and Father Brendan that are a combination of confession and advice-seeking are some of the funniest in the film.
The most moving sequences aren’t so much the ones involving sex between Mark and Cheryl, but those that deal with the emotional bond that springs up between them. One she recognizes is a train wreck in the making, a disaster she is powerless to avoid. It even causes tension between her and her husband Josh (Adam Arkin) when he perceives that she has real feelings for Mark.
How the sessions come to an end, Mark’s sudden confrontation with how frail his hold on life is and the aftermath are all best left to be viewed without explanation, description or pre-conceived expectation.
The writing and direction are first rate. Ben Lewin’s work here makes one want to check into his prior feature works because he is clearly a first-rate filmmaker. Hawkes and Hunt are magical, together and separately. He does it all without moving any muscles below his neck and it is very easy to believe that a real victim of polio was cast to play the role… which is of course not the case. Hunt captures the ease with her body and at being naked in front of strangers that someone who earns a living as a sex surrogate would have. The film even manages to illustrate why sex surrogates and prostitutes are completely different and how the role of a therapist overseeing those sessions makes it clinical as opposed to tawdry and cheap.
The Sessions is an excellent film. You will be moved, but it wasn’t cheap manipulation of your emotions through the use of maudlin storytelling. Mark O’Brien’s life was an inspiring triumph over circumstance and should be enjoyed as such.