The subject matter of The Sessions, the tale of a disabled man’s quest for physical intimacy, seems to promise melodrama. Paralysis may not constitute a genre, per se, but it is a powerful metaphor and filmic material; and serious actors loooove that stuff. The circumstances of these characters allow for both emotional and physical contortions of the sort often recognized by the award-granting bodies. (In fact, in 1990, two of the five actors nominated for the Best Actor Oscar, including the ultimate winner, played wheelchair-bound characters.)
What’s curious and appealing, then, about The Sessions is its emotional mildness, its evenness of pitch. Star John Hawkes plays the poet and journalist Mark O’Brien. Mark spends the bulk of his day confined to an iron lung in his dingy apartment in Berkeley, Calif. Post-Polio Syndrome has wasted his muscles, leaving him virtually zero mobility. He can move his toes, a little, and his neck enough that he is able to type and work a phone by use of a mouth-held pointer. But he cannot leave the iron lung for more than a couple of hours a day; and then, he is wheeled around on a gurney. His social life is made up primarily of the small—and changing—roster of attendants who visit him in his apartment. But, these are professional relationships. Mark’s condition, he fears, means he will never know love in full, that the most he will ever experience is the frustrated, aimless and unreciprocated affection of a pre-adulthood.
Adding to Mark’s complications is his devout Catholicism. As much as he is wracked physically, Mark is wracked spiritually. On the one hand, he acknowledges that he is frequently angry and self-pitying; on the other, he fears he is somehow to blame for his own illness and possibly for the childhood death of his younger sister, from whom his own ailment deprived parental attention.
A chance journalistic assignment points Mark in the direction of a sexual surrogate: Cheryl (Helen Hunt) is a therapist who functions as a kind of sex mentor/tutor/cheerleader. She takes Mark as a client and promises that within a maximum of six sessions they will reach full penetration—and, by implication, a fuller and more rewarding, less disabled existence for Mark. The emotional stakes, in other words, are high.
I won’t spoil the plot by telling you whether or not they are successful. I will tell you, though, that the characters are all played with warmth and dignity. I cannot recall another recent movie in which there are no villains, no assholes, no one whom you are intended to despise. There are complications and regrets, of course. But every character—even the most minor—is shown to possess a gentle humor and fundamental, if sometimes flummoxed, decency. Perhaps most representative is Father Brendan (William H. Macy), the priest to whom Mark turns for guidance and permission. Where one might expect Father Brendan to be aghast at Mark’s experiment in fornication, he is instead tolerant. “Go for it,” he says after a moment of prayer.
I find John Hawkes a delight to watch (his turn in Marcy May Marlene was one of my favorite performances in recent memory). He does a marvelous job conveying Mark’s wry humor, his physical fragility and surpassing pluck. (Breathing Lessons, a short documentary about the real Mark O’Brien, can be found online, if you want to compare.) It’s likely not a hysterical enough performance to garner Hawkes a statuette, but I hope it gets him the audience this performance deserves.