Sex and sexuality is a really, really big deal, especially in our modern society. It’s important and serious and, to be sure, a little scary. And this is me speaking as a comparatively healthy and able-bodied guy. What if, like poet and journalist Mark O’Brien, I had survived poliomyelitis, only to be left spending the vast majority of my life inside an iron lung just to be able to breathe? Well, Mark himself had something to say about it, which he put into an article: On Seeing a Sex Surrogate. His story made it into a short documentary: 1996’s Breathing Lessons, not to be confused with the Anne Tyler novel. And now writer/director Ben Lewin has turned it into a touching, sensitive, and wryly funny film: The Sessions.
As we start, O’Brien (John Hawkes) is an improbable graduate of the University of California, working as a writer and journalist. He has fired one less-than-pleasant attendant and hired the much comelier Amanda (Annika Marks), for whom he develops a romantic attraction, which sours their relationship. As he hires Vera (Moon Bloodgood) to replace Amanda, he gets a contract to write an article about sex and the disabled. The one-two punch of fresh rejection and awareness of others’ success leads him to a therapist, who refers him to sexual surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt).
A surrogate, as Cheryl explains, differs from a prostitute on one very important point: she does not want his repeat business. The goal is for him to come to comfort with himself enough to do without her. It might not be so easy, however, for her to avoid a certain amount of transference herself, much to the chagrin of her husband (Adam Arkin).
Any treatment of sexuality in the movies runs the risk of going silly — just look at what happened with Hysteria — so Lewin’s deft sensitivity is to his credit. It also reflects well on Hawkes’ ability to play O’Brien without any hint of parody. And Hunt, of course, has made something of a running theme out of the notion of therapeutic sexuality, most notably in 1992’s The Waterdance, but also in As Good as It Gets, in its way.
Another subject Lewin handles with tact and care is O’Brien’s devoted Catholicism, which is most apparent in his confessor, Father Brendan (William H. Macy). Despite Lewin’s avowed “fundamentalist atheism”, Brendan comes across as exactly the sort of unassuming, compassionate priest I grew up around and was somewhat disappointed to find fewer of as I moved out into the world. But they do, indeed, exist, and Brendan’s bemused but friendly support of Mark’s explorations is key in fleshing Mark out as a character.
But to take Mark and Cheryl seriously does not mean adopting an overly serious tone. The whole film is shot through with a dark, wry sense of humor. While most of these lines go to Hawkes, they’re so pervasive it’s difficult to tell if it’s a reflection of O’Brien’s own attitude, or if it’s Lewin’s response to his own childhood polio coming out in his script. Either way, it’s this humor in the face of literally crushing reality that makes The Sessions so enjoyable to watch.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.