There are some movies you watch and immediately know that it’s going to receive multiple award nominations from all types of organizations. The Sessions is one of those movies. It’s a deeply human story about life and love and it stars an underrated actor playing a severely crippled man who looks at the world from a different perspective than we’re accustomed to, thus allowing us to see the world that way as well for a brief period of time. It’s one of those movies that is noticeably flawed, but its strengths outweigh its weaknesses so much that the flaws seem negligible. The Sessions is funny, emotional, heartfelt and warm and it’s a must see.
Based on a true story, John Hawkes plays Mark O’Brien, a handicapped man who has suffered from polio since the age of six. As he says, he isn’t exactly paralyzed. He still feels sensations, but his muscles have become so weak that he can’t move anything. He’s a deeply spiritual man (at one point he says he has to be spiritual because living the way he must would be unbearable without having someone to blame) and one day he seeks out the advice of Father Brendan (William H. Macy). He explains to him that, even though he knows it’s forbidden in the Bible, he wants to have sex. He knows his disease only gives him a limited amount of time to live and he wants to experience all that life has to offer before departing. Surprisingly, Father Brendan gives him his blessing, so Mark sets up some appointments with a sex surrogate, Cheryl Greene (Helen Hunt), who teaches him about physical love.
Hollywood movies these days put a strange importance on sex, perhaps because society has dictated its. Most movies look at it from a childish viewpoint, as something that all men must do, lest they remain a virgin, an arbitrary sexual term that bears no real weight. The Sessions looks at it from a decidedly different and refreshing viewpoint. Despite being the main protagonist’s central goal, sex isn’t treated like an immature necessity, but rather as a pleasurable experience, just one of many that we humans are able to enjoy. Mark hasn’t had many experiences like it and it’s not so much the sex he wants, but that he simply wants to feel something. He wants to feel alive for a brief (sometimes very brief) period of time. One beautiful scene shows Mark’s thoughts as he partakes in sexual activity, but they aren’t filled with lustful desire like some may expect. Instead, he’s picturing running on the beach and feeling the sand beneath his toes, the rush of a waterfall as it flows through his fingers and running his hands through a loved one’s hair. This wondrous scene simultaneously devalues the notion of sexual importance in the typical societal sense and brings to light its real importance as a special, intimate feeling that we take for granted.
Also refreshing is the film’s stance on Catholics or, for that matter, religion in general. Father Brendan, for example, isn’t a vindictive oppressor like many men-of-the-cloth representations, but rather a sympathetic man who understands that basic human needs and desires sometimes outweigh biblical interpretations. He’s initially hesitant to give his approval, as I imagine any priest would be, but he doesn’t let scripture cloud his judgment. Not once is there a statement in favor of or against his decision, but in the end, he does what he knows is right, even if that means going against his faith. That’s not to say The Sessions takes a stance on faith either—it seems neither for nor against it—it merely exists as a personality trait of the characters within the story.
Despite his handicap, Mark is never treated as lesser. He’s as complex a human being as anyone in the movie, perhaps more so given his humorous outlook on life in spite of his predicament. The movie uses his handicap as a means for comedy at times (the image of a fully naked woman sitting on a crippled man’s face is surprisingly amusing), but it never feels mean spirited because he does the same thing. He jokes about himself and sometimes relates those jokes to God, whom he says must have a “wicked sense of humor” to keep him on Earth with such a disease. He’s a lively and passionate man that you can’t help but care about not out of pity, but because he’s a genuinely wonderful person.
Where The Sessions fails the most is in its worthless side stories, most notably the one involving Cheryl’s home life. Her troubled private existence is so incredibly thin and barely explored that it fails to bring forth even the slightest bit of compassion from the viewing audience. There are numerous other little missteps as well that threaten to derail the movie, but the central story and performance are so good, so touching, so life affirming that in retrospect, it hardly matters. The Sessions is practically guaranteed to receive some well-deserved awards nominations in the coming months, including a Best Actor nod for John Hawkes, who gives what may be the best performance of his career. This is one that’s well worth sitting down for.
The Sessions receives 4.5/5