Sex and religion make comfortable bed fellows in The Sessions, a brilliantly portrayed film about salvation of the body and the soul.
Mark O’Brien was an exceptional man. A victim of polio at a young age, O’Brien spent the majority of his life disabled from the neck down and living in an iron-lung, yet a successful poet, writer and advocate for the disabled he became. A devout Catholic, his existence was example of the pro-life position the Church advocates.
For all of his miraculous accomplishments, Mark strove to achieve something greater: physical intimacy. The Sessions wonderfully depicts that journey. Based on his article “On Seeing a Sexual Surrogate”, the film shows how Mark (as played by John Hawkes) came to enlist the services of sexual surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene (something of a clinical prostitute, played by Helen Hunt) and the complications that arose from such an arrangement.
Hawkes is simply incredible as Mark O’Brien. Not only does he convincingly portray the physical limitations of Mark’s condition, but (perhaps more importantly) he conveys that warm, intelligent, humorous and gentle spirit that was Mark’s being, Hawkes performance reminding us that while this is an intelligent and sympathetic man, he should never be seen as pitiful.
Where the physicality of Hawkes performances is all about restraint, Hunt goes all out in her portrayal as a sex educator and liberator, often full frontal nude and projecting a mature confidence while doing so. More impressive is Hunt’s portrayal of the emotions behind the professional facade, as she falls for her new client’s heart and soul.
The title of the film refers (of course) to the sessions between Mark and Cheryl. Yet just as important are sessions of a different variety between Mark and his parish priest Father Brendan (William H. Macy at his understated best). Mark’s religious life if just as vital a part of his identity as his sexual curiosity, and Father Brendan provides spiritual nourishment as well as a lending ear to ease Mark’s anxious transition into this new phase of his life.
It is rare to watch a movie where sex is treated with maturity, religion is treated with respect and characters are so heart-warmingly written and portrayed. It all comes down to the writing and direction of Ben Lewin, a long-time director known more for his TV work in his native Australia.
Lewin has truly made quite the beautiful movie where unlikely characters and topical subjects gel comfortably. Hopefully The Sessions will be the calling card needed for the veteran filmmaker to continue delivering work of this calibre and maturity.