Mark O’Brien had a nimble mind and an effusive personality trapped inside a body that could barely budge.
He’s a true-life character who you can’t help but admire after watching The Sessions, a story of triumph over disability that takes the form of an uplifting sex comedy rather than a depressing saga of a dying man.
The modest yet charming film is a frank and authentic exploration of sex among the disabled that contains some genuine poignancy even if it indulges in sentimentality.
The film is based on the memoir of O’Brien, a spiritual New England man afflicted with polio who has long since outlived medical projections and who spends most of his average day inside an iron lung. The rest of the time, he is wheeled around in a gurney by friends and caretakers.
But Mark (John Hawkes) has a healthy, almost wicked sense of humor regarding his predicament, and at age 36, his primary wish becomes to lose his virginity. Realizing that all conventional methods are out of the question, he contacts Cheryl (Helen Hunt), a paid sexual surrogate who acts as a therapist.
The two are scheduled for six sessions, during which both Mark and Cheryl must overcome physical and psychological limitations to develop a relationship and achieve his goal.
The lead portrayal of Hawkes (Winter’s Bone) is remarkable. He offers a complex performance of a complex character using primarily facial expressions and voice inflection. The audience really only gets to see Mark from the side, and rarely gets an upright view of his face.
Hunt’s performance also is bold and frequently requires her to bare both body and soul. She and Hawkes achieve an appropriately uneasy chemistry.
Credit also belongs to director Ben Lewin (Paperback Romance), who is a polio survivor. Lewin’s script develops Mark’s character beyond the disease, and is sensitive enough to avoid trivializing or exploiting his condition. And it’s also very funny, particularly in Mark’s often raunchy confessions to his bewildered priest (William H. Macy).
The emotional journey of the audience in many ways mirrors that of Cheryl, as its attitude toward Mark turns from pity to admiration for his courage and positive outlook on life. Likewise, The Sessions isn’t interested in lecturing as much as it is about having fun.
Rated R, 95 minutes.