Raw, unrestrained and sympathetic without giving in to melodrama, “The Sessions” is about a man facing a physical challenge who decides he wants to become intimate with a woman.
This is based on the true story of Mark O’Brien (played by John Hawkes, who can be seen on a neighboring screen in “Lincoln”), who is in his late 30s. Mark spends much of his time in an iron lung as a result of contracting polio when he was a boy.
Now, he has decided he wants to experience intimacy before his “sell by” date. (We hear his thoughts in a voiceover throughout the film.) And he has decided to hire Cheryl (Helen Hunt), a sex surrogate, to accomplish his goal.
A Catholic priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy), talks with Mark about Mark’s feelings. Father Brendan struggles with how he should advise Mark and prays with him about what’s going to happen.
We watch Mark go about his daily life as he interacts with different assistants. He’s nervous before his first meeting with Cheryl, and his anxiety provides some comic moments while he makes the agonizing decision of what shirt to wear.
Mark is a writer. He’s clever, conversational and personable, and Cheryl has not met anyone quite like him before. She’s not at all put off by his situation, and she approaches their meetings with a compassionate professionalism.
If you’ve read this far, you won’t be surprised that the dialogue and visuals are straightforward. This could make some viewers uncomfortable, although I found its directness, and the fact that the script does not treat Mark like a person whom viewers should pity, refreshing.
Hawkes is marvelous. After all, he can use only his face to convey emotions, and he does this very well in a role that reminds me of the lead performances in “My Left Foot,” “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” and “The Sea Inside.”
Hunt, as always, is believable as the woman who begins to feel conflicted about the relationship with her client.
The film never exploits either of its main characters, giving them both dignity and respect. I think that audiences who see “The Sessions” will find Mark an intriguing character — an author who deserves to be remembered not only for his words but also for his perspective on his own humanity.