The Sessions is one of those movies that just stays in your head for weeks. John Hawkes portrays Mark O’Brien, a man who lives inside an iron lung. Mark caught polio as a child and cannot function properly outside the iron lung for long periods of time. A poet and working journalist, Mark’s goal at the start of the film is to explore the topic of sex and the disabled. Upon realizing that the subjects he has been interviewing aren’t giving him the information he’s looking for, Mark decides to get in touch with a sex surrogate to experience sex himself — at age 38 — for the first time.
The Sessions, which is based on a true story, is a small but mighty film about a physically disabled man who chooses to love the people around him. John Hawkes, an incredible character actor, does a brilliant job of portraying Mark O’Brien honestly; but it is a testament to the real O’Brien that even this performance will probably never measure up to the man O’Brien was to the people who knew him best. Hawkes plays O’Brien as a frail but observant human being with razor sharp wit and an underlying current of sadness and vulnerability. It’s astonishing, for sure.
Helen Hunt, as real-life sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene, also plays her part extraordinarily well. You can tell by watching Hunt — and there are ample opportunities to look — that she has not aged a day since the film Pay It Forward.
This film plays its dramatic elements just as confidently as its comedic ones, making it believable and charming despite its difficult topic. As a person with a physical disability, I found myself not looking at the overall situation O’Brien was in, but at O’Brien himself. I often wondered how he found the courage to conduct such a personal experiment in the name of journalistic interest. I fully realize that most people will be sympathetic to Mark’s disability, but to those who feel that urge to feel sad for either Mark the character or Mark the man, please don’t. He is an extraordinary human being who lived a brilliantly full life as best he could.
I love the earnestness of this picture. It is honest, daring, and touching, but it doesn’t really ask you to feel anything. If anything, it allows you to wonder what and how you feel, and then it lets you wallow in a place of uncertainty until you find a way to enjoy what is unfolding on screen. I know movies like this present a challenge for viewers sometimes because the goals aren’t clearly stated, but I think the strength of this picture comes from just letting the movie take you on a journey, just as O’Brien allowed himself to go on one.
This film will not be forgotten — by me or, likely, awards voters — for some time. For you general movie-going audiences, See This Movie. It is definitely worth your time and attention. It is strong enough to stand for a person’s independence and light-hearted enough to make you know by the time its credits have ended why you care about what you learned from O’Brien’s journey.