Polio Is No Obstacle In A Man's Quest To Have Sex
Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando
A comedy about a polio survivor trying to lose his virginity is not a sentence I thought I would ever use to describe a film, but The Sessions is exactly that.
John Hawkes stars as Mark O'Brien, a man who lives his life inside an iron lung, save for the few hours a day he is able to breathe on his own. As a child, he contracted polio and has been paralyzed from the neck down ever since. He's also a devout Catholic, routinely confessing to his priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy), who gives him advice and also serves as perhaps Mark's closest friend. When Mark decides he wants to lose his virginity at thirty eight years of age, he's put in touch with a sex surrogate named Cheryl (Helen Hunt) who tells him that they will have a total of six sessions, each one furthering his sexual experience.
The film is based on an article written by the real-life O'Brien about these sessions, and it turns out to be quite funny. Like some of the best comedies about teenagers trying to lose their virginity, The Sessions takes that idea and applies it to an area that most films tend to shy away from: the sexual desires of an older man who has never experienced a woman's touch as a result of his handicap. It's an idea that when first heard, you tend to tilt your head and think about it for a second, before realizing that it's brilliant and quite refreshing given the current state of comedies about sex.
Hawkes is fearless as Mark and he gives a beautiful performance as this man who underneath it all just wants to meet the right woman. He's charming, caring and, like a teenager getting to experience sex for the first time, is quite misguided. In the first act of the film it seems as though Mark will fall for any beautiful woman that gives him attention, but it's not because he's shallow, rather, he thinks it's love. There's considerable precision for an actor to have in a role like this and Hawkes nails it. You feel for Mark and can't help but remember your own experiences (we've all had them) where you thought attention meant something more than it was. It's all due to how Hawkes makes Mark relatable to the audience, however foreign his circumstances seem.
In addition, he's incredibly funny in the role. There's a sense of joy and wonder to Mark that's completely genuine and incredibly infectious. The key to all of the comedy that ensues is Hawkes' decision to play every scene straight, instead of trying to push something funny. His reactions are all real, as opposed to going for, say, a punchline in certain scenes. He trusts that the comedy is there in the script and stays true to his take on Mark being a guy who is simply eager to experience something new.
Playing off of what Hawkes does in these scenes are Hunt and Macy, both terrific in their roles. Cheryl is not a character you would immediately associate with Ms. Hunt, but what she brings to the role immediately reveals why she's perfect for the role. In Cheryl's first scene with Mark, she's completely nude and explains the rules of their relationship in a very casual manner, achieving both a vulnerability and a commanding nature to the character. Hunt is fearless as Cheryl and is quite the perfect match for Mark's awkward inexperience.
Mr. Macy on the other hand makes the decision to play Father Brendan as a friend to Mark first, his priest second, and that works in the film's favor. Father Brendan is new at the church, and from the moment he and Mark first meet, there's instant chemistry, which hints that Mark has never really had a best friend to talk to about what he's feeling. Macy also helps to bring out some of the comedy, specifically in his reactions to Mark's sexual desires.
It's the three leads that make The Sessions an enjoyable film, as well as the decision by writer/director Ben Lewin (a polio survivor himself) to make the film a comedy, even if, at times, Lewin seems to struggle with tone. There are scenes in the movie - such as one involving Cheryl's theory that Mark blames himself for his sister's death as a child and as a result he feels undeserving of pleasure - that suggest a much darker film. I had the sense that there was a story Lewin wanted to explore further but decided to abandon in favor of a more lighthearted tale.
Furthermore the ending is a mixed bag of emotions and feels more abrupt than natural. Without spoiling what happens, I'll say that a character who ends up being significant to Mark shows up in the last five minutes of the movie, and you can't help but ask why that person is not introduced much earlier and explored a little more. Lewin seems to abandon the comedy and go straight for the heart instead of maintaining the feel good nature of the story. It's this tonal shift that prevents the film from being great, which is unfortunate considering how good the rest of the film is.
The actors made me forgive this misstep at the end of the film, enough to still call The Sessions a good movie. Hawkes continues to prove what an amazing, talented actor he is with every new role and Mark is the perfect vehicle for Hawkes to showcase these skills. It's a film that's saved by the actors involved, all of whom bring a certain commitment to their roles that is both admirable and enjoyable. If you're in the mood for an unconventional sexual comedy, The Sessions will surely lift your spirits.