Based on the life of poet and journalist Mark O’Brien, and inspired by the 1997 Academy Award winning documentary short, Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien (directed by Jessica Yu), The Sessions is a warm, beautiful movie that tackles many themes – life, death, sex, love, disability and religion – all with humor and tenderness. John Hawkes portrays O’Brien, a remarkable poet and journalist who’s lived with polio most of his life and required an iron lung to survive. Even though he couldn’t move any part of his body except his head, O’Brien used a stick to express his feelings and communicate the life experience of someone with a disability.
In the film, Mark is dependent upon caretakers to help him with his daily life and falls in love with one of his caretakers. When she can’t reciprocate his feelings, she quits. Despite being unable to physically move, Mark does have feeling in his entire body. After one too many, shall we say, excited reactions while being washed in his nether regions, Mark decides that he wants to have sexual intercourse before his short life comes to an end.
A devoutly Christian man, Mark seeks guidance from his priest, questioning whether God will forgive him his sin if he has premarital sex. The priest, recognizing the uniqueness of Mark’s situation, feels that God will let it slide. So Mark, with the help of a new caretaker, seeks out the help of a sex surrogate.
Hawkes, who was so approachable in Deadwood, and so menacing in Winter Bone, gives one of last year’s most inspiring acting performances as the polio-stricken O’Brien. Much like Daniel Day-Lewis transformed his body into Christy Brown in My Left Foot, Hawkes contorts his body and somehow resists the urge to use his arms and legs. With just his head, face and voice as his primary tools, Hawkes isn’t just acting as O’Brien, he becomes the man. That Hawkes was overlooked for an Academy Award nomination is a shame.
Co-starring is Helen Hunt, the Oscar/Emmy winning actress who has done fewer roles in the past years. Hunt is a solid choice as the role of Cheryl Cohen-Greene, the woman who helps Mark come to love and appreciate his body, despite its limitations. Cheryl is a frank, take charge woman who is both emotionally and physically naked throughout the film (indeed, Hunt is fully exposed in many of her scenes). In most of her work, Hunt has always had the gift of walking the fine line between rigid and gracious, which may be why audiences loved her on Mad About You during that hit sitcom’s run. In The Sessions, Hunt gives Cheryl an assured exterior, yet allows the audience to see behind the façade, as the woman forms an emotional attachment to her “client.”
Filling out the rest of the fine cast of The Sessions are William H. Macy, as O’Brien’s priest, a long haired, forward thinking man who finds his follower’s journey both fascinating and inspiring. In his limited scenes, Macy delivers his typical heartfelt, funny performance. Moon Bloodgood plays O’Brien’s principal caretaker, Lydia, who at first comes across as stoic and clinical, but soon becomes one of his most trusted confidants. A couple of Hawke’s Deadwood cast mates provide small, pivotal roles. W. Earl Brown portrays Rod, another one of O’Brien’s caretakers, and Robin Weigert appears at the end as Susan, O’Brien’s partner through the final years of his life.
The Sessions was written and directed by Ben Lewin, a veteran TV and film director. Lewin, a 65-year-old polio survivor, came across the actual O’Brien’s article about hiring a sex surrogate and felt that he could draw from his own life experiences to create a realistic and human portrayal of O’Brien’s story. The entire production was a family affair, with his wife helping to produce the movie, and his daughter working on the production staff.
On the surface this may seem like a sad film, especially considering that the real O”Brien passed away at age 49. However, The Sessions is a celebration of life, spirituality and sexuality that is funny and beautifully made. You can feel the passion for this story come through in the direction and all of the performances. I can’t recommend it enough.