The Sessions (2012) Also known as ‘The Surrogate’
***No real spoilers***
I consider myself to be something of a tough old man. Despite becoming more emotionally labile as I got older, there is very little that makes me cry. Indeed, I could count the films that have brought tears to my eyes on one hand, and one of those was about a dog! (Hachi: A Dog’s Tale, 2009)
I had never heard of the film, ‘The Sessions’, nor anything about the real-life person, Mark O’Brien, whose life is the subject of it. But it was on TV late at night, so I decided to watch it, perhaps drawn by the presence of Helen Hunt, an actress I have long admired.
Mark O’Brien was a Californian man who contracted Polio at the age of six. After that, he was unable to move anything except his head, and depended on living in an iron lung most of the time, just to stay alive. He became a writer, tapping the keys by using a stick in his mouth. He relied on paid carers for almost everything else, having to be fed, and to drink using a straw. He was able to go outside lying on an ambulance trolley, wheeled by his attendants, but was housebound the rest of the time. The added problem for Mark was that he still had all the usual emotional feelings and sexual urges, but could not act on them. After being rejected by a girl he proposes to, he decides to confess his feelings to his local Parish priest, (William H. Macy on his usual good form) and to ask his ‘permission’ to use the services of a sex surrogate and therapist, Cheryl. (Helen Hunt)
Cheryl is not a prostitute, rather a specialist who helps disabled and withdrawn men discover their sexuality by teaching them about sex, using her own body. I have to give a warning here for full-frontal female (not male) nudity, as well as some sex acts shown in a fair amount of detail. But PLEASE don’t let that put you off this film, as everything is done so naturally, and there is nothing at all salacious or titillating in this necessary inclusion.
Mark is allowed to employ Cheryl for six sessions only, (the Sessions of the title) during which time she educates him about the female body, and how to appreciate his own body too. Progressing from foreplay to full intercourse over the duration of the film, these sessions are warmhearted, sometimes very funny, and always beautifully handled. Knowing that the story is true elevates this film above any with a simply sexual theme. In fact, I cannot think of of many films with a similar theme at all!
As might be expected, Mark becomes very fond of Cheryl. And as their relationship builds, we see Cheryl also returning his affection, and the effect this has on her home life and marriage too. We also get more insight into Mark’s condition, and how it limits his life. Full marks have to go to John Hawkes, for his portrayal of Mark. It is almost impossible to believe that Hawkes is not suffering from the same condition, such is his ability to not only act the part with great emotion, but also to convey the physical defects so convincingly. Had this been a mainstream film, it might well have starred Daniel Day-Lewis, and he would have got a Best Actor Oscar. Hawkes deserved one, in my opinion.
Helen Hunt is a perfect choice for the role of Cheryl. Spending much of the film naked, she is completely relaxed at all times, and her interactions with Mark are always touchingly played, and totally believable. The rest of the cast are mostly unknown to me (except for Macy) but are all equally excellent in their understated style. I really cannot praise this film highly enough, and it has gone straight into my top twenty of films I have enjoyed, and been affected by. It is sold as a comedy, and does indeed have many very funny moments. However, I have rarely seen a film that combines such life-affirming feelings with sadness in quite the same way. Please try to see it.
And it made this grown man cry.
Here’s the American trailer.