I’ll be honest and admit right up front that the primary reason I wanted to see The Sessions was hearing that Helen Hunt, who plays professional sex surrogate Cheryl, is naked much of the time. That’s the hook, to be sure. All the press Hunt did for the movie seemed to focus on the nudity and her age (she’s 49). After seeing the film I can’t believe she was actually nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. She’s fine in the role, but the only truly notable aspect is how often she disrobes during this rather superficial tale of idealized puppy love.
The Sessions is based on an autobiographical article written by the late Mark O’Brien, “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate.” I haven’t read the article, so I can’t speak on the adaptation’s accuracy. My opinions here are based only on what is presented in the film, with no disrespect to the real-life individuals being portrayed. The role of Mark is very ably handled by John Hawkes, who certainly deserved attention from the Academy far more than Hunt. Though I was familiar with Hawkes from films such as Winter’s Bone, Martha Marcy May Marlene, and Contagion, I absolutely forgot I was watching an actor. Hawkes vanishes into the role, digging deeper into the heart of Mark than Ben Lewin’s rather thin screenplay allows (Lewin also directed).
Mark is a polio survivor who was left largely immobilized by the disease. He can speak and use a pencil to dial a phone or type his poetry on a typewriter. The story takes place in the ‘80s, hence the old school tech. Mark sleeps and spends much of his day in an iron lung. He gets around on a gurney, initially motorized but later only manned by an aide. His aides are frequently dismayed by his erections and ejaculations that occur while bathing him. As he explains, he’s not paralyzed per se. He retains normal sensation throughout his body.
Enter the sex surrogate. Mark is 38 and a virgin. A sex surrogate would provide him the opportunity to lose his virginity before it’s too late (his life expectancy is limited due to the ravages of polio). Being Catholic, he has even consulted his priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy). Though Brendan initially expresses a little concern about sex outside of marriage, he concludes that God would probably grant a “free pass” in Mark’s case. So the sessions begin, limited to six, building from body exploration exercises to full-on intercourse.