Once, with feeling
Offbeat story about sex and disability ‘a seriocomic tour de force’
Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) is more or less quadriplegic, a victim of childhood polio who spends most of every day in an iron lung just to stay alive. He’s vital enough in mind and spirit to have worked his way to a degree from UC Berkeley and to have persisted in his Catholic faith, and at age 38 he begins to wonder if he might have one genuine sexual experience before his already unexpectedly prolonged life comes to an end.
He makes inquiries with his caregivers and assorted medical advisers and consults as well with his priest, the amiably indulgent Father Brendan (William H. Macy). After some false starts, he connects up with a medically approved sex surrogate named Cheryl (Helen Hunt), and the two of them get caught up in a brief, gentle, surprisingly intricate relationship.
Writer-director Ben Lewin has taken a magazine article by the real-life Mark O’Brien (“On Seeing a Sex Surrogate”) and converted it into a charming little seriocomic tour de force. Under Lewin’s direction, and with beautifully judged performances from Hawkes, Hunt and Macy, The Sessions comes alive in a variety of ways—as a quirky sort of romantic comedy; a genuinely sensitive drama on a seemingly lurid and/or queasy-making subject; a frank, calm and gently erotic sex comedy; a feel-good story about the fragility of feeling good.
Lewin’s screenplay is at its best when centered on O’Brien’s point-of-view, with voice-over narration in Hawkes’ quavery voice and some skipping around in chronology as the tale unfolds. And the drama gains some depth and breadth from the attention paid to the concerns of other key characters—moral dilemmas for Father Brendan and personal and professional ones for Cheryl.
The tender matter-of-factness of Lewin’s approach is very appealing throughout, and especially so in the scenes with Hawkes and Hunt together. The latter pairing is crucial, but O’Brien’s fleeting relations with women before and after Cheryl combine into a sweetly rambunctious string of subplots that might be termed “The Amorous Adventures of Mark O’Brien,” were they not so disarmingly casual.
That mixture of playfulness and seriousness prevails among the supporting players as well. Even the few familiar faces—Rhea Perlman as a “Mikvah Lady” and Adam Arkin as Cheryl’s “philosopher” husband—practice understatement in their brief turns. Annika Marks as conflicted caregiver Amanda and Robin Weigert as a friendly hospital volunteer also make noteworthy impressions. Ming Lo does nicely as a semi-clueless motel clerk.
The illusion-free generosity and practicality of caregiver Carmen (Jennifer Kumiyama) looms quietly in the margins of several key scenes. As such, she might be taken as the presiding representative of the multi/counter-cultural Berkeley to which the film pays warm if somewhat indirect tribute.