I think that if someone is disabled, they should at least have the decency of being bitter and angry. But I guess that Mark O’Brien, the central character in writer/director’s Ben Lewin’s movie The Sessions, didn’t get the memo. Mark, crippled by polio as a child and unable to breathe on his own for long periods of time, has, what some might term, a rather positive attitude toward life, attending college and becoming self-supporting as a writer. He never reaches the highs (or, perhaps more accurately, the lows) of Annie singing Tomorrow or the Von Trapp kids singing Do Re Mi. In fact, one of the funniest lines here is when Mark is asked if he believes in God and he says he has to, that life would be unbearable if he couldn’t blame someone for all the awful things that happen. But Mark has somehow managed to achieve an equilibrium about life that I doubt I’d be able to achieve in similar circumstances.
But there is one aspect of his life he has yet to explore. Now, one of the rules for screenwriters is that if you are going to write a story in a familiar genre, then you need to find a new perspective, a new twist, to justify the foray. And Lewin has more than learned that lesson. The Sessions is basically a story about a man losing his virginity. So we’ve had the horny teenage film (boy, have we had the horny teenager film) and we’ve had the middle aged man going all the way film (The 40 Year Old what’s his name). So what’s left? The man encased in an iron lung losing his virginity film, of course. I mean, it’s so obvious, the only thing surprising is that someone hasn’t thought of it before.
John Hawkes plays O’Brien with a constant wistful look in his eyes. But no matter how sad he is, Hawkes has this quality in his performance that won’t let you feel sorry for his character. And you find yourself doing exactly what everybody else in the movie does: you fall for him, you fall for him hard. And he has an advantage that many of us don’t—he is able to write love poems (taking a note apparently from Robin Williams’ teacher in The Dead Poet’s Society who told his students that the only reason one writes poetry is to woo women—though I always wondered how that applied to Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman).
Helen Hunt plays Cheryl, the sex surrogate who is called in like Dudley Do Right to help O’Brien achieve his goal, and it’s a perfect, if somewhat standard, roll for her, a character who starts off cold and distant, not able to share her emotions, finding herself forced to come out of herself (the Katherine Hepburn type part). William H. Macy takes time out from his over the top, hedonist of Shameless to play a down to earth, practical priest who can only enjoy his hedonism second hand. The previews make one think he’s going to be a caricature; but in reality, he brings a very relaxed and every day quality to his performance.
The movie is witty and touching and laugh out loud funny. The directing, though a little flat perhaps, doesn’t get in the way and gets the job done. There is one oddity that should be mentioned. For a movie that preaches sexual freedom and that one should be comfortable with one’s body and nudity, Lewin is actually a prude and a bit of a hypocrite. He has no problem showing the women in full frontal, but when it comes to the men, he uses a metaphorical fig leaf in the form of a very, very, very carefully placed mirror. In the end, it makes one wonder who’s really the more uncomfortable with sex, O’Brien or Lewin?