The charming route helps widen the audience net, but makes you question if a slightly different approach would have had a more meaningful impact.
Ben Lewin’s The Sessions collected attention at various film festivals throughout the year, under the film’s original name of The Surrogate. Because the film is based on a true story about a man who struggles in life because of his condition; the film had a good chance of either being a contriving work of Oscar-bait or an emotionally inspiring film. Oddly enough, the film ended up being neither of those things. The Sessions was ultimately a light-hearted comical take on a very serious subject.
The opening scene gives a quick background on the real-life Mark O’Brien. At 6 years-old Mark O’Brien was diagnosed with Polio, which left his body immobilized but his mind completely unharmed. Despite his condition he followed his dreams of becoming a poet by graduating from University of California Berkeley.
The Sessions jumps ahead to the 1988 after Mark (John Hawkes) graduates from college. He sleeps in an iron lung and is taken care of by an attendants. Being that he was raised Catholic, when he is in need of answers he turns to church. This is when he meets with Father Brendan (William H. Macy), who would later become a close friend of his after repeated advise conversations.
In due time, the core of what The Sessions is about comes to light, which is sexuality. Mark realizes being 38 years-old means he does not have a lot of time left to engage in sexual intercourse. Considering he is not able to move from the neck down and that he has never had sex before, this is a monumental procedure for him. Mark turns to Father Brendan if he thinks God can overlook having sex outside of marriage because of his situation. In an unlikely response, Mark receives the Fathers blessing.
The courage he possess to go explore his sexuality is overshadowed by his understandable nervousness in the uncharted territory. Setting up the appointment to meet with a sex therapist is one thing, but having the courage to show up to the first meeting is another. Once he finally does and meets with a sexual surrogate named Cheryl (Helen Hunt), he begins a journey that he has never been able to experience before.
John Hawkes continues to prove why he is one of the best actors in the field today. Dealing with the difficult physical challenge with ease; Hawkes remained full of spirit and had a wonderful sense of humor about everything. Over Helen Hunt’s long career, she has had more ups than downs and fortunately she can chalk up another victory here. She played a lovely saint accompanying Hawkes who desperately needed it. Because of how much nudity her role entailed, it was a brave role for her. The Sessions picked up two well-deserved acting nominations for this year’s Independent Spirit Awards. While Hawkes did not receive an Oscar nomination for the Academy Awards this year, Hunt did receive a nod.
What the film does well is show a subject that is rarely shown, disabled people being just as sexual as the able-bodied. Without glamorizing sexuality, the film handles the subject with grace and maturity. Unfortunately, the film felt stuck between being insouciant and hard-hitting. The charming route helps widen the audience net, but makes you question if a slightly different approach would have had a more meaningful impact.
The Sessions successfully tackles a subject that is often either mishandled or grossly embellished, so in a way the film deserves recognition for that alone. Add in the two delightful lead performances and one might think the film would be a home-run. Unfortunately, the film ends up slightly missing a big payoff because of undeveloped sub-plots and rushed pacing, making for a marginally underwhelming finish.