Mark O’Brien was a virgin until he was 38. He was a poet, journalist and activist; he also had a rare form of polio that completely paralyzed him from the neck down. The Sessions is based on O’Brien’s life, particularly a period of it he wrote about in a personal essay published in The Sun magazine entitled “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate”.
O’Brien writes that for most of his life he viewed his sexuality with a mixture of intense envy and guilt, and the emotion is perfectly captured in an early scene in The Sessions. Mark, expertly and subtly played by John Hawkes, is bathed by his attendant, and as she reaches his groin a look of disgust flashes across her face. A look of embarrassment passes over his.
The lightness with which The Sessions deals with its heavy subject matter is perhaps its greatest accomplishment. Despite Mark being confined for most of the day to a gigantic iron lung that allows him to breath, the balance between the heavy and the lighthearted is apparent from the start. The Sessions begins with a narrated poem written by O’Brien describing the sad irony that so little of the air all around him is actually useful. The poem is interrupted by Mark trying to figure out how to scratch an itch.
The iron lung defines Mark’s life, a reality he challenges by deciding to figure out his sexuality instead of accepting its non-existence. He decides to contact a sex therapist, someone who works through the psychological and the physical aspects of sexuality. Mark’s therapist, played by Helen Hunt in an Oscar-nominated role, informs him that her goal is for them to have sex. Her main rule is that the number of sessions they can have is limited to six, the implication being to prevent the emotional attachment of her patients. But of course it’s not that simple, and instead of shying away from complicated emotions The Sessions embraces them and tries to make sense of it all.
The scenes of intimacy between Mark and his therapist involve a lot of nudity and, at least initially, plenty of awkwardness. But they gradually become a powerful depiction of mutual love that is far more complex than sex scenes we’re used to seeing. It’s a reminder of the profound emotional experience that sex can be.
Director and writer Ben Lewin avoids any sense of over-dramatization or voyeurism in his portrayal of O’Brien. Despite the inevitable sad ending, the film lets us down easy, allowing the emotions to speak for themselves. The movie has drawn some criticism for depicting a much-simplified version of the end of O’Brien’s life, which in some sense is true. More so than the film, O’Brien’s writing reveals that his therapy resolved his fear of sex but did little for his fear of love.
A good documentary provides an accurate depiction of its subject. Good fiction, on the other hand, is something we can relate to. In pulling us close, The Sessions inevitably pushes O’Brien a little bit away, which actually helps realize what he wanted all along. To paraphrase O’Brien, stories about people with disabilities end up being about what they can or can’t do. The reality is that they’re simply human.
If the Oscars had a “most important film” category The Sessions would’ve won it.
Nolan Matthews, Senior ANDY Editor