Movie review by Greg Carlson
Award season exuberance follows “The Sessions” like an adorable puppy dog, but director Ben Lewin’s sharp exploration of one man’s quest to dispense with his virginity before his “use by date” mostly steers clear of the inevitable platitudes of affirmation that accompany so many movies in which able-bodied actors portray the disabled. John Hawkes will have to tally more votes than Daniel Day-Lewis to win an Oscar, and one of the trivial anecdotes sure to be noted in the likely event that Hawkes find himself nominated is that his “Lincoln” castmate collected his first Academy Award playing “My Left Foot” artist and poet Christy Brown.
Based on the experiences of tenacious Berkeley, California resident Mark O’Brien, a victim of childhood polio confined to an iron lung for all but an hour or so on any given day, “The Sessions” focuses on the adult O’Brien’s desire to reconcile his religious faith with his drive to experience sexual intercourse. Lewin maximizes the comic mileage inherent in the juxtaposition of erotic curiosity and Roman Catholic Church doctrine. William H. Macy, as the priest who eagerly counsels O’Brien, endorses the quest, saying, “In my heart, I feel like He’ll give you a free pass on this one.” O’Brien goes on to hire Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt), a professional sex surrogate.
In Jessica Yu’s Academy Award-winning documentary “Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien,” O’Brien says, “My ambition as a journalist is to be able to write about anything. I know I’ll always be asked to write about disability… but I think of an actor like Danny Glover, who doesn’t play ‘black’ men all the time. He just plays men.” Hawkes’ performance, due in no small measure to the weight of O’Brien’s own words, allows the viewer to see O’Brien not as a disabled man but as a man. Hawkes makes the tremendous effort to accomplish the physical transformation into O’Brien, but he particularly excels at embodying his subject’s biting sense of humor and clear-eyed lack of self-pity.
Along with Yu’s short film, O’Brien’s 1990 essay “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate” shares indispensable insight into the psychological and emotional dimensions of the events dramatized by Lewin in “The Sessions.” Archived on O’Brien’s website, the brief essay describes in clear prose both the procedure O’Brien followed to arrange the sessions with Cohen Greene and the psychological barriers he surmounted to get past imagining himself as damaged and deformed. The article and documentary touch on aspects of O’Brien’s life, particularly his relationship with his parents, not explored in the dramatization.
If “The Sessions” fails on any level to meet the high standards set by O’Brien’s directness and honesty, it is in Lewin’s struggle to understand Cohen Greene’s psychologically challenging line of work. The viewer is told that surrogacy is not the same as prostitution, but the director struggles to articulate to what extent Mark transcends his position as a client. We also experience domestic tension between Cheryl and her husband Josh (Adam Arkin), and even if a great deal is deliberately left unsaid by the filmmaker, the audience is not invited to understand Cohen Greene to the same degree as O’Brien.