I was a bit skeptical of this film at first, but I can say unreservedly that it boasts true heart and sensitivity. In many respects, it reminds me of another film about a man with a so-called disability, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. In both, a highly creative individual is able to defy their physical barriers and truly impact the world around them.
In the case of Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), he graduated from Berkeley destined to become a journalist and poet, the only difference with him is that for most of his life he has been confined to an iron lung that keeps him alive. It seems like an obvious roadblock to success in life, and yet not so for Mark because he faces each day with a sense of humor and even a spirituality that is impressive. He relies on his caretakers for so much and yet they enjoy helping him because he is a generally kind spirit. First, it’s the beautiful Amanda (Annika Marks), who he sincerely professes his love to and then there’s Vera (Moon Bloodgood), who while frank, is still deeply concerned with his well-being. Furthermore, the local priest (William H. Macy) is equally willing to listen to Mark’s confessions, not simply about sins, but more importantly his life on a whole.
Mark’s a very transparent individual, who attacks life with a positivity and tenacity that goes beyond the physical. Wit becomes his precious ally in facing every day, and he also takes great care in the relationships around him. He wants to live his life to the fullest, and he won’t let an iron lung impede him. Thus, he decides that he would like to try and have sex since he is still a virgin and feels that he might not have long left to live. And so, after consulting with his priest and acknowledging the sensitive nature of the decision, he tentatively decides to go for it. Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Helen Hunt) becomes his sex surrogate, and yet she is more of a therapist than anything else. She helps Mark become more and more comfortable in his own body and there is a beautiful vulnerability and openness to their time together.
The Sessions proves that there can be depictions of sex that can be as tender and sensitive as the characters involved. It’s not some vulgar act or a simple gratification of desire. It has more significance than that, just as these characters carry more significance. Father Brendan is not a perfect character just as Mark is not perfect, but we appreciate them for their geniality and light touches of humor. As for Cheryl, she does a great favor for Mark, and yet in the process she herself is deeply moved by this man in front of her. He’s seemingly so weak, so unassuming, and yet there is so much vibrancy to him.
The day Mark dies is sad for all of us and gathered at his funeral are all the people we expect to be there. The Father gives a heartfelt eulogy as all the women he touched sit in the pews looking on. The beauty of this story is that Mark finally did find love quite by accident, and he touched so many lives in the process. Though not a perfect film, The Sessions is heartfelt and that covers a multitude of faults.