Based on the poignantly optimistic autobiographical writings of Californiaâbased journalist and poet Mark OâBrien, THE SESSIONS tells the story of a man confined to an iron lung who is determined - at age 38 - to lose his virginity. With the help of his therapists and the guidance of his priest, he sets out to make his dream a reality.
The Sessions is the story of Mark O'Brien (The Perfect Storm's John Hawkes), a writer who has been all but paralyzed from the neck down because of a childhood case of polio and needs an iron lung to breathe. After a series of failed experiences with women, he consults with his priest (William H. Macy from Boogie Nights) and decides that it is in his best interest to lose his virginity with a professional before he continues to pursue relationships with the opposite sex. Rather than hire a prostitute, he consults a "sex surrogate" named Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Helen Hunt from "Mad About You") to teach him about his body, his physical feelings and, eventually, his sexuality. Cheryl meets with Mark on a regular basis, and the two develop a friendship. Predictably, Mark begins to have romantic feelings for Cheryl which are in direct opposition to her professional rules of not getting involved with clients. Mark has to deal with his feelings for Cheryl discretely, since her therapy is helping his attitude and confidence, but this task may soon become too much for him.
Written and directed by Ben Lewin (Georgia), The Sessions is based on Mark O'Brien's true story. It's not like any movie that has been made before, which is good, but it suffers from a bit of an identity crisis. The premise lends itself to being a little sick and twisted but the execution is much more straightforward, like a real love story. There are patches of humor in the film, but it is so subtle that it may as well not be there; Lewin would have been better served going with full-fledged slap-stick than trying to slip warm and fuzzy giggles into his serious film. That's the main problem with The Sessions - it takes itself too seriously instead of getting tongue in cheek and giddy with itself.
The Sessions is not boring and it's not tedious. It's well acted and executed and, despite the lack of focus in the writing and the failed attempts at humor, it's not an exceptionally bad film. There is just very little action and the events get repetitive quickly; Mark goes to see Cheryl, goes to see his priest, goes to see Cheryl, goes to see his priest, rinse and repeat. Over the course of the film, the routine gets dull. Although the main characters are likable and interesting, the viewer winds up wanting to see more of the minor characters just to break the monotony. Stuck somewhere in between a sappy love story and a quirky fetish film, The Sessions best feature is that it's short enough to not need a bathroom break in the middle.
The acting in The Sessions is somewhat uneven, but is, for the most part, well done. John Hawkes is great; playing the role of a quadriplegic requires him to act without using his body, forcing him to get the emotions and feelings of his character out using only his voice and inflections, and he proves that he is up to the task. The supporting cast is full of experienced and skilled actors like William H. Macy as Mark's priest, Father Brendan, and Adam Arkin ("Sons of Anarchy"), who plays Cheryl's husband, Josh. Both actors have fairly small parts, but are exceptional in their limited screen time. The weak link in the cast is Helen Hunt, whose Cheryl acts, well, just like Helen Hunt. Hunt spends much of the movie naked and, admittedly looks great, especially for her age, but this lack of costuming still cannot distract from her lackluster performance and the fact that she slips in and out of an annoying Boston accent throughout the film. Hunt's portrayal of the professional therapist is clinical, even in places where the character is supposed to be emotionally driven. Her limited skill as an actress comes shining through whenever she shares scenes with the more talented Hawkes; John Hawkes does more with his eyes and words than Hunt is able to do with her entire acting arsenal. Even still, the rest of the ensemble cast of The Sessions more than makes up for Hunt's limitations and comes through with enjoyable performances that are the high point of the film.