On an extremely rainy Christmas day, I went to the Landmark Opera Plaza to see The Sessions.
The Sessions starring John Hawkes & Helen Hunt; with William H. Macy; directed by Ben Lewin; (2012) - Official Website
Based on a true story of Berkeley poet & polio sufferer Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes), The Sessions tells the story of O'Brien's sessions with sexual surrogate Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Helen Hunt). Set in Berkeley in the late 1980s, I wonder if the events could have taken place anywhere else. Based on Cohen-Greene's explanation, I'm still not sure how a sexual surrogate differs from a prostitute. Much emphasis is placed on the fact that Cohen-Greene's policy is to limit each patient to six sessions. That seems arbitrary if the aim is address sexual dysfunctions.
O'Brien is in his late 30s, spends most of his time in an iron lung, is devoutly Catholic which forbids sex before marriage. That's a problem for O'Brien whose virginity causes extreme sexual frustration. His paralysis does not allow for "self-gratification" although I wonder if O'Brien's Catholic conscience would allow him to practice onanism (I didn't have to look that word up). Like Porky's and countless teenage sex farces, O'Brien decides to lose his virginity...although his goal is blessed by the Catholic church. He could die if he doesn't. Actually, he likely die soon regardless of sexual experiences or lack thereof.
Fortunately, O'Brien's priest is Father Brendan (William H. Macy), a man who doesn't let his ordination interfere with his cigarette smoking & beer drinking. Certainly vicarious and almost voyeuristic, Brendan grants O'Brien dispensation for premarital sex and then frequently discusses the details with him to see how the sessions are progressing. Much of the humor in The Sessions involves Father Brendan hearing O'Brien's status updates in the church.
As O'Brien's sessions with his surrogate continue, he (and the audience) realize that although lack of sex is part of the issue, O'Brien really desires an emotional connection with a woman. He wants a wife but his disease is more than most women can look past. This premise has the potential to become schmaltzy but only occasionally crosses the line. In fact, the character of O'Brien meets the same fate as the real Mark O'Brien...it's not a happy ending but it seems appropriate.
Hawkes (Winter's Bone) is completely subsumed by the role. He is very convincing as the upbeat polio victim. Helen Hunt always seems infuse her characters with the same sense of articulate self-respect. Her character seems to be completely at ease about her professions (even with her husband and teenage son). It's only when undergoing a mikvah (I had to look that word up) that she expresses the slightest hesitation in proclaiming her job. I've never really been a Helen Hunt fan and wonder what other actresses could have done in the role of Cheryl. I will say the 48 year old Hunt was certainly game for nude scenes and The Sessions even gets off a doozy of a sight gag about oral sex.
Moon Bloodgood (looking a lot like Tia Carrere) stands out as O'Brien's assistant and caregiver. Macy provides comedic relief.
At times The Sessions makes the audience uncomfortable but Hawkes affable performance keeps the film on a even keel. I don't hold The Sessions in as high a regard as some critics but the film was certainly worthwhile.