Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) suffered from polio as a kid, but he went out and achieved anyway. We meet him as a 38-year-old virgin with sensation in his body but without the power of mobility. He spends his time being wheeled around on a gurney by assistants, or at home in an iron lung. It’s bleak, but he has a good sense of humor, and his caregivers make for fine friends and crushes.
He has ongoing conversations with a priest, played by William H. Macy. The priest has a weird haircut that I theorize speaks to a growing disconnect between what the clergy does and the modern world—but I might be over-thinking the hair.
O’Brien was a working writer in real life, and the film is based on an article he wrote in 1990, “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate.” Through his research, he realizes that hey, guys in iron lungs have urges, too, and he enlists the help of a surrogate named Cheryl (Helen Hunt). There’s a lot to know about this profession! She is not a prostitute, to be clear, but a hands-on therapist who works on teaching her clients about the potentials and limitations of their own body. They’re only allowed six sessions together, and audiences should be advised, you’ll be watching many of these sessions up close, with full female nudity, in real time. I reiterate: an aging but still very lovely Helen Hunt appears flagrantly and repeatedly naked.
The Sessions is a sensitive and interesting film—it teaches us about corners of sexuality most of us will never be burdened with visiting. It helps that O’Brien is charming and sweet, but then, they always are in these films. (Think of all the poor dolts in wheelchairs with lives undeserving of biopics, who aren’t wealthy or cultured or witty…no, stop. It’s too painful.)
Inevitably, in all of these narratives about broken men, he will fall for a beautiful girl, and then, overwhelmed by his disability, she will reject him. Rather than accept this as an unpleasant reality, the woman is painted as superficial. The idea is that he will find a woman of true virtue, who is both beautiful and saintly enough to appreciate him for his mind alone. Do you see the double standard? I find it aggressive toward women, but never mind.
Let me go off for a moment on yet another sensitive subject that no one in this town seems willing to talk about: Why can’t the good people who run the projection system at the Wilma get their act together? I have never not seen a film at the Wilma that didn’t break down at some point. When I saw the movie Sunday night in the big theater, the film broke at a critical moment between Cheryl and her aloof, philosophical husband, so that as a critic I am helpless to draw conclusions: Is the relationship between them murky and poorly defined, or did I miss a crucial plot point?
We should think about sending around a collection plate or something to update the Wilma’s equipment. On the subject of men finding themselves in the face of overwhelming adversity through the power of sex, love and laughter, I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to miss a single second.
The Sessions continues at the Wilma.