Based on the journalistic writings of poet Mark O’Brien, The Sessions is a warm and witty account of his attempts to lose his virginity – at the age of 38. O’Brien (Hawkes) contracted polio as a child and is forced to spend much of his day inside an assisted breathing device known as the ‘iron lung’. Unable to walk and confined to a gurney for travel, Mark’s plight becomes apparent when we witness him being bathed by a home nurse. Unable to wash himself, he must suffer the indignation of being helped by a gruff, embittered woman who mutters things to the effect of “Polio patients are always the worst whiners.” Making matters worse, his perfectly functioning penis (and considerably sized, we’re told more than once) isn’t particularly choosy about a playmate. After several embarrassing bath time ‘accidents’, Mark, a Catholic, feels compelled to consult his priest. “My penis is speaking to me, father,” he informs a decidedly unorthodox William H Macy.
Mark forges a confessional bond with his priest during some of the film’s funniest scenes, and the pair thus form an unusual alliance. After much soul searching and one journalistic assignment on ‘sex for the disabled’, Mark happens on the idea to consult a sex therapist. Thus begins a funny, intelligent and soulful performance from Helen Hunt (Mad About You, As Good As It Gets), who it must be said is still looking lovely despite pushing 50, defying gravity in all the right places (in a way that Madonna doesn’t). As the breadwinner for her household of husband and teenage son, Cheryl is an experienced therapist who exudes both professionalism and kindness. Some questionable gender equality means that we never see Hawkes in his birthday suit, but the pair are well cast and have natural chemistry. Over the course of only six therapy sessions, Mark’s confidence blossoms, and their teacher/student relationship becomes more complicated.
Hawkes was seen recently in the disturbing Martha Macy May Marlene, in which he played a sinister, emotionally-manipulative sexual predator. The Sessions finds him at the opposite end of the spectrum, equally convincing as a sweet, emotionally vulnerable, sexually inexperienced man. The first of Mark’s sessions, in which Hunt’s character helps him through ‘body awareness’ exercises, are both amusing and genuinely moving.
Less convincing, however, is the priest’s comedically relaxed attitude toward Mark’s dilemma and his willingness to sanction, among other things, sex outside of marriage. Macy is fantastic as always, but there are moments that don’t ring true. In fact, I had niggling reservations throughout in regards to the film’s authenticity. One suspects the fault lies either in director Ben Lewin’s screenplay, or the script’s source material: Mark O’Brien’s articles. While the magic of poetry will get you far, the combined task of believing not just one, but three women falling deeply in love with this man (as happens throughout the course of the film), in what seems a very short period of time, feels like a stretch. This is not to say that Hawkes’ character doesn’t deserve the affection, or that three women could never fall for a gurney-ridden journo-poet paralysed by polio – it simply means that the script couldn’t fully convince me here.
On the other hand, one might assert that questions of authenticity are irrelevant, especially as so much of the film is successfully played for laughs, but when the opening sequence features actual footage of O’Brien graduating from university, this arguably sets events in a ‘true story’ context. It becomes distracting, then, to think about these potential flights of fancy on the part of Lewin or O’Brien, particularly since they unnecessarily muddy the waters of a great personal victory.
The Sessions (3)
Dir: Ben Lewin; US drama/comedy, 2012, 95 mins; John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H Macy, Moon Bloodgood
Premiered March 7
Playing at Dagmar, Grand Teatret and Gentofte