I’ve seen it–the film of the year: THE SESSIONS. I know it’s only October, but the bar is now set extremely high. THE SESSIONS makes everything else I’ve seen lately look fake and showy. The premise is simple and unusual, based on the true story of 39 year old Mark O’Brien (Boston born?) poet/journalist living in Berkeley CA. who is still a virgin and wants to have sex. The complication? He’s had polio from the age of 6, cannot move from the neck down, and lives most of his life in an iron lung.
Written and directed by Ben Lewin, THE SESSIONS stars Oscar nominee John Hawkes (WINTER’S BONE) as Mark– a courageous, open soul who “believes in a God with a wicked sense of humor.” Hawkes is gentle, mischievous, and quietly emotive as a man with the full range of psychic, emotional, physical, spiritual, and intellectual impulses intact, but with a limited range of outlets to express them all. Hawkes strikes a tender balance– short of fierce, but bravely determined– to be fully sexual, despite ridiculous obstacles. What Mark and we get– but didn’t expect– is a transcendent journey, of which sex is but the first step.
Enter Helen Hunt as Cheryl a suburban housewife with kids and a loving husband; she also happens to be a trained sex therapist. Hunt’s work here is as astounding as Hawkes’s. Never have I seen such a wholesome, fresh, honest portrayal of sex in the movies. Within minutes of meeting Mark for the first time, Cheryl casually strips off all her clothes, with the sun streaming in on her, without a hint of self-consciousness, kitsch, or traditional “sexiness.” It took my breath away. She’s utterly dignified, and at ease in her body, and radiates that ease to Mark.
Their sessions are blunt but delicate encounters, sometimes funny, sometimes scary, and yes sexy– with very frank, unadorned language about the sex they are having. These scenes are wondrous. Not clinical, not dark, not titillating– something else. They manage to evoke warmth and arousal, humor, pain and sadness, as well as undiluted pleasure and joy as we watch Mark– and Cheryl– slowly discover a universe of new experience and insight. Hunt, with great subtlety and precision, conveys how these sessions begin to rumble like distant thunder on the horizon of Cheryl’s own marriage.
On this trip, Mark is also supremely lucky to have found the most perfect priest on the planet, who tells him to “go for it”– Father Brendan, played with humility and humor by William H. Macy. Their “sessions” take place in the sanctuary of Father Brendan’s church, and the film has great fun with the irony of Mark’s advice-seeking from a man who has taken a vow of celibacy. One understands that Father Brendan is benefiting as much from Mark’s sexual encounters– not just vicariously as a voyeur, but also as a human being in search of truth, whose instinctive wisdom and compassionate advice to Mark is being validated.
There are at least two scenes in THE SESSIONS that brought me to tears, because they so simply and profoundly traced a path linking sex, guilt, forgiveness, affection, and love. Mark’s history and his future are bound up together. It isn’t that sex liberates him; it is that accepting himself with compassion is absolutely a prerequisite for his profound connection to another human being.
It’s a wise teacher who knows what doors to open; it’s a brave soul who dares to walk through those doors; and it’s a brilliant filmmaker who can so clearly and elegantly guide an audience through those portals into the deepest layers of what it means to be human. THIS FILM WILL BE AN OSCAR CONTENDER, as will several of the actors in it. DO NOT MISS “THE SESSIONS.” I will see it again.