Based loosely on a true story, The Sessions tells the tale of Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes), a polio survivor who spends the majority of each day confined to an iron lung that breathes for him. After a lifetime of absorbing dirty looks from caretakers when he pops erections during sponge baths or ejaculates in his sleep, O'Brien finds the courage to explore his repressed sexuality by seeking out the aide of a surrogate partner, Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt). O'Brien's physical limitations are exacerbated by his Catholic guilt surrounding sex, for which he seeks guidance from the lovably flawed Father Brendan (William H. Macy). O'Brien's journey of self-discovery runs into trouble when he finds that he is searching for something more than just his first sexual experience with Greene.
To connect audiences with O'Brien, the film opens with glimpses of his daily challenges, such as his inability to scratch an itch. Using humor as a coping mechanism, O'Brien becomes more than just a handicapped character to be pitied, but a person to be rooted for. His humor and optimism suggest he would have found more success as a motivational speaker than a self-proclaimed "writer/poet." This becomes evident in a number of voiceovers featuring O'Brien's poetry, which are meant to paint a picture of his emotional landscape. Luckily these lines, which sound like the "poems" of an emotionally stunted high-schooler who has never had sex or a girlfriend, fade out beneath the humorous banter between O'Brien and the characters he meets who change his life.
Serving as a comedic foil, the chaste Father Brendan provides a humorous audience for O'Brien's internal conflicts and the graphic details of the sessions that can't be shown on film, like O'Brien's repeated attempts to achieve full penetration before succumbing to premature ejaculation.
Religion itself plays an ambivalent role despite its seeming importance to the main character. The film does not challenge Catholic views on sex. In fact, God's inclusion in the film seems to serve little more function than to be the butt of O'Brien's joke — he believes in God because he finds it absolutely intolerable not to have someone to blame for his condition.
The acting is as solid and understated as the film. Until I Googled John Hawkes, I was convinced the casting director had found a paraplegic actor who could charm an audience despite his nasally voice and inability to move little more than his mouth. Helen Hunt delivers a brave, if subtle performance. One of the main goals of surrogacy work is to make the client feel comfortable with his or her body, which would be difficult if the surrogate looked like an ageless Hollywood actress. On screen, Hunt gets naked with as much fanfare and comfort as if she were changing in her bathroom, revealing an imperfect body most middle-aged women find looking back at them in their vanity mirrors.
Like O'Brien, the writer/director Ben Lewin contracted polio as a boy, leaving him reliant on crutches. He deserves credit for the enormous effort it must have taken to make an unsexy romantic comedy that sheds light on the importance of sexual fulfillment for the disabled. But, for as much risk as Lewin took with an unconventional subject matter and characters, he took the easy way out in terms of the narrative by focusing on a romantic connection between O'Brien and Cohen.
It is easy to see how O'Brien would fall for Cohen, or any woman who showed him the least hint of affection, but this doesn't explain why Cohen's character would develop romantic feelings for O'Brien. Even though Cohen's husband was portrayed as a jealous, pretentious and unemployed slob, Cohen's character acts as though she has never had to deal with a client who confessed his love for her. This cheapens both Cohen's professionalism and O'Brien's maturity. In an interview I did with the real life Cohen (after watching the film), she confirmed that she didn't have a love connection with O'Brien. In fact, O'Brien broke off the sessions early because he did not want to become attached.
However, Cohen opened O'Brien up to the possibility of finding love with someone else, which happened both in real life and in the film. Unfortunately the film only offers a glimpse of this real love story, which is the complex and difficult romance I wish Lewin would have focused his lens on. I still want to know how O'Brien charmed a woman into dating him despite his seeming lack of an income and the multitude of other challenges facing him. Surely there was more to it than the movie cliche that love is blind. Did she have a fetish for handicapped people? Had she been abused in the past and wanted a man who was incapable of hurting her? Did she want someone she could take care of who depended on her completely? Did she like the attention she received from dating someone with a sever disability? This would have been the complex and challenging love story befitting the characters and the film's subject, and this is the love story that went unexplored.