[Note: This review was originally written at Sundance earlier this year, when the film was called The Surrogate. Somehow it slipped through the cracks of publication, so it has been updated to reflect the new title.]
Someone made a movie about iron lung sex. On behalf of the world, thank you The Sessions, a beautiful wonderful movie that gets us to talk about sex. Through polio stricken Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), we address sexual issues in the most extreme situation, gently and humorously.
Unable to move his body, O’Brien begins researching an article on sex for the paralyzed and decides to see sex surrogate Cheryl Greene (Helen Hunt) himself. He’d just assumed he’d always be a virgin, but this opens up the possibilities for grown-up relationships with women.
The film answers lots of questions we’d have about the possibilities for his condition, including masturbation and positions. Yeah, we need to talk about these things. Also if you’re wondering about sex surrogates, the film clarifies just how professional and sensitive they are. It answers a lot of practical questions about O’Brien’s care too, with his caretakers and electronic assistance, though the one question it doesn’t answer is how does he pay for all that? He’s a poet and journalist, and I can tell you I couldn’t afford an iron lung on my salary.
The language of the film is poetic, perhaps coming from O’Brien’s real life article, and he’s so self-deprecating you can’t find any of it dirty. Some jokes about climaxing too quickly and men ignoring simultaneous orgasm are too easy but that’s two or three moments. All the rest are hilarious and irreverent, like O’Brien’s “When a man and a woman love each other” reference or religious blame jokes.
This is no movie of the week. There’s too much nudity for that, and also a real character study and organic drama. The nudity is all truly lovely. Besides Hunt looking amazing, it’s so healthy. It removes discomfort from sexual discourse so it’s no longer a dirty topic. Of course you never see Hawkes full frontal because that would make ratings issue prohibitive to distributors, but she shows bush.
The film never plays the romance card. O’Brien certainly appreciates Cheryl but I don’t think he’s trying to date her. And she has issues with her husband (Adam Arkin) but never about her profession. It seems they must have dealt with that a long time ago if they’re still married. The only conflicts are specifically how she runs her business and their religious differences. She is genuinely touched by O’Brien but that’s not a conflict of interest. It’s a profound thing she’s helped him achieve.
Near the end they play the disease card with a troubling close call O’Brien has, but it’s probably something he really went through and it’s well done. It’s only because it comes in the third act that it risks being manipulative, but it pays off by leading to some real growth in the relationships O’Brien is able to have.
I truly believe this is a conversation we need to have more openly, to talk about sex in our relationships and to see the differently abled as full blooded men and women themselves. Beyond that, The Sessions is the type of movie that makes you feel like you can accomplish anything. If Mark O’Brien can accomplish what he did, the rest of us have no excuse to whine. Very smart buy for Fox Searchlight.