The Sessions is a movie about a poet paralyzed from the neck down by polio who hires a “sex surrogate” to take his virginity.
It’s a great premise. But it does a rare thing. It goes further. It explores the split with have in society, that you can live by the body or live by the mind. Never between can the two paths mix. And, sometimes, religion joins the party, so you’re pulled in another direction.
Mark O’Brien, played by John Hawkes, can’t stay out of his iron lung for more than three or four hours. He has hired help through the day and night. Don’t be confused here, though. He’s not helpless. He’s got a college degree, publishes poetry, and does free lancing. In addition to everything else the movie does well, it portrays a man with a disability in a positive, inspiring light.
But as much as O’Brien goes on about beauty and everything, being a poet and all, he’s never been with a woman. An early attempt at a romance with one of his caregivers ends in heartbreak before it even starts. But one begins to understand that it’s not O’Brien’s disability that has held him back. Because as much as he’s paralyzed, he has charm and intelligence to make up for it. And he can achieve an erection, and even feels sensation all over — he just can’t move his muscles.
It’s an overwhelming shame about his situation, Catholic upbringing, and some other important things in his past that has kept him from living a more complete life.
Enter Helen Hunt as “sex surrogate” Cheryl Cohen-Greene. I’ll oversimplify what a sex surrogate is. Basically, it’s a therapist who has sex with you, and works you through your sexual hangups. In short, she helps you get over your hangups.
What makes the movie work so damn well isn’t just the concept and incredibly gifted actors. It isn’t just the plot, which is always fascinating. It’s the theme, built on in every scene and every character, of life being essentially incomplete and fruitless without the integration of both mind and body.
And, just for the record, the sex scenes in this movie are not controversial or racy. At times they’re scary. At times funny. And at times breathtakingly beautiful for all the reasons you don’t expect.
The Sessions is available now for rental or purchase on Blu-ray and DVD.