In 1990, poet and journalist Mark O’Brien wrote a piece entitled “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate.” A damaging bout with polio as a child left O’Brien largely confined to an iron lung and effectively paralyzed from the neck down, but he persisted in pursuing a career as a writer. After getting an assignment centered on sex and the disabled, O’Brien started thinking about his own lack of experience in that area. Nervously, even reluctantly, Mark sought out a surrogate who could therapeutically introduce him to lovemaking. The new film The Sessions tells that story.
Written and directed by Ben Lewin–himself a childhood victim of polio whose motor-functions were impaired, though in far less pronounced fashion–The Sessions is disarmingly frank about its subject, which is, of course, the only way to make this sort of film work. With an admirable level of knowledge and respect for O’Brien’s situation, Lewin carefully guides the film, finding the humor and sadness in the situations the lead character endures. It would be easy for the film to become overly maudlin, and a tilt towards overly cutesy celebration is just as likely. Either route would have proven miserable. If Lewin is sometimes overly pat and staid in his approach, the easy TV production rigor of the work remains preferable to the far riskier alternatives. The Sessions is committed to its story with a reporter’s plainspoken flatness, nicely in line with O’Brien’s original essay.
That prevailing commitment to veracity makes the script’s diversions into melodrama all the more unfortunate. As sympathetically played by John Hawkes (who wisely concentrates as much on the character’s emotional vulnerabilities and his diminished physical stature), O’Brien is undoubtedly a highly charismatic person, but the film still strains credibility when it implies that the sex surrogate, played with a study pragmatism by Helen Hunt, begins to have deeper emotional feelings for him. Certainly anyone involved with any level of social work winds up forging deep connections with different clients, but the welling emotions of Hunt’s character come across as nothing more than a movie contrivance, a way to build additional conflict into the final act.
Sure enough, there’s no indication in O’Brien’s essay of any aspirations towards romance on either side of the transaction (when the sessions end, O’Brien’s primary reaction is relief that he won’t be spending any more money on this), and it winds up as a sort of betrayal of the unique and genuinely important (if particularly intimate) physical therapy taking place. There are other concessions to movie mechanics–a convivial and confiding relationship between O’Brien and a priest played by William H. Macy has amusing moments, but is clearly there to provide an easy way to air out the film’s themes–but drumming up more material out of the supposed emotional connection between O’Brien and his therapist ultimately subverts the mature seriousness of the earlier portions of the film. O’Brien knew his story was interesting enough without too many embellishments. It would have been nice if Lewin had similar confidence.