Film Review: The Sessions

This warm, witty, sensuous and quite wonderful study of a disabled artist terrifically avoids any “triumph of the human spirit” sentimentality.

Poet-journalist Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes), a paralyzed polio victim, must live in an iron lung, depending on the help of nurses to tend to his daily needs. When he gets an assignment to write about sex and the disabled, he begins to really wonder about the long-imagined possibilities of female physical contact for himself. Enter Cheryl Cohen Green (Helen Hunt), a sex therapist who endeavors to bring him to sensual life.

Jessica Yu’s documentary about O’Brien (who died in 1999, at age 59), Breathing Lessons, won an Oscar in 1997. In The Sessions, writer-director Ben Lewin fictionalizes one chapter of his life, when he finally lost his virginity in 1988. In Lewin’s hands, what could have been an infinitely depressing film is anything but, possessing vast amounts of humor and humanity. It all, of course, hangs on the actor playing O’Brien, and Hawkes rewards his director—and the viewer—with a performance that is simply stunning in its truth, courage and blissful avoidance of anything mawkish. Through no over-straining effort on the part of either actor or filmmaker, O’Brien simply emerges as the smartest, funniest and most interesting guy imaginable, and his wry attitude towards the hellishness, absurdity and intermittent joys of his life make him, despite his disability, a fully fit Everyman for anyone to relate to.

In the film, O’Brien is happily surrounded by a cadre of lovely, vibrant and highly caring women whose rich estrogen fuels the movie as much as his ever-febrile mind. Chief among them is Hunt, in a bravely raw performance in every sense of the word, getting full-frontally naked for her necessary scenes and being completely convincing and earthy in the best sense, in a role that is, in its way, nearly as challenging as Hawkes’. As two of O’Brien’s nurses, Moon Bloodgood has a dry, witty effectiveness, while Annika Marks, described by Mark as having a “Tudor face,” playing the one he really falls for, is just lovely, no other word.

I wish more of O’Brien’s actual, rich writing had been used in the film, as you come away with somewhat more knowledge of how his body functions rather than his intellect. William H. Macy brings some knowing, terse humor as a priest who hears our hero’s unescapably florid confessions, which cannot be conducted in private due to the gurney he lies on, causing a few raised eyebrows in the congregation. W. Earl Brown is very likeable as yet another aide, while Adam Arkin is likewise, playing Cheryl’s husband, a role that is almost an amusing role reversal of all those unbelievably supportive and understanding wives throughout movie history.