I will be quick to admit that I have a strong aversion to “Oscar bait” movies, heart-wrenching dramas seemingly designed to sell those tiny little plastic bags of Kleenex women put in their purses and propel their lead actors to Oscar glory. While The Sessions is yet another vehicle for John Hawkes’ continued on-screen awesomeness, I was pleased to discover it has much more going for it.
The film is based on an autobiographical article written by Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) called “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate” published in The Sun in 1990. O’Brien is paralyzed since childhood from the neck down by polio, and despite earning a degree and being an accomplished poet/journalist, he spends a majority of his life in an iron lung. After consulting with his priest about the ramifications of carnal sin (William H. Macy), he hires a sex surrogate, Cheryl (Helen Hunt), to help him lose his virginity. We also get a glimpse of the intricacies of O’Brien’s everyday life through depictions of him and his attendant, Vera (Moon Bloodgood).
What makes The Sessions much easier to take than the “a disabled person learns to have sex” logline belies is the amount of sheer human warmth and humanity that Hawkes, Macy, and Hunt bring to their roles. This is a film filled as much with humor as it is with tears. For all of his day-to-day struggles, O’Brien remains positive, and disarmingly self-deprecating.
Yet the film brings up many interesting discussion topics that have little hope of finding even a modicum of resolution in a 90 minute film, which is probably the most frustrating aspect of the project as a whole. O’Brien struggles with marrying his Catholic faith with his interest in discovering his own body out of wedlock, which illuminates an issue many people of faith, disabled or not, have today. Ideas of religion and sex are woven throughout the film but are never fully explored. So too are the struggles that handicapped individuals endure when it comes to knowing, and appreciating their bodies. How painful a hurdle it must be to trust a body that has given you so much pain throughout your life, and to trust it to not only give you pleasure, but someone else pleasure as well. Hawkes’ performance is wonderful, and he is worthy of the praise he has received thus far. However, I wondered if Hawkes’ portrayal of O’Brien was in fact glossing over some of the more difficult issues underneath for the sake of sentimentality. The core message of body awareness, appreciation, and love is strong, perhaps so strong that it clouds over the more important battle raging inside the mind. That mental journey is something I would have liked to see more of.
The Sessions is an important work because it illuminates people and topics that many find difficult to face separately, let alone in the same movie. It’s not the kind of story that makes people run out to theaters, but the issues it brings to light and the lessons it teaches are ones that people need to hear.
The Sessions is now playing at the Ritz East.