There are movies you enjoy, and there are those that make you squirm. Compliance, for example, which played here in September, was a squirmer, a maddening drama based on the true story of a fast-food manager who strip-searches an employee at the behest of a prank caller posing as a cop.
The Sessions, written and directed by Ben Lewin, is also a squirmer, but for different reasons. Based on a magazine article by Mark O'Brien, a polio victim in an iron lung who wrote about his experiences losing his virginity to a sex surrogate, the film spares the audience almost no uncomfortable part of his quest. In so doing, it challenges us to look at and think about something most would rather not consider—the sexual lives of the disabled. The film is unusually frank, with considerable full-frontal nudity (female), and lots of talk about penises, vaginas, nipples, and orgasms. And it performs the deft feat of juxtaposing this with a theme of devout Catholicism.
John Hawkes plays Mark, a childhood polio survivor who spends all but a few of his hours in an iron lung. His condition hasn't prevented him from graduating from college and having a successful career as a poet and journalist, but it does make him dependent on a series of attendants. He likes some of them, detests others, and falls in love with one, a pretty student named Amanda (Annika Marks). His unrequited crush, and an article he's assigned to write about sex and the disabled, inspire Mark to seek the help of a sex surrogate, but not before asking for the blessing of his new parish priest (a weirdly long-haired William H. Macy), who uncomfortably assents.
A certain amount of humor is wrung from the odd spectacle of Mark, horizontal on his gurney at the church, discussing orgasms with the priest while parishioners worship silently in the pews. "I'm getting close to my 'use by' date," complains Mark, who at 38 is still a virgin.
Mark's surrogate is Cheryl (a sharply angular Helen Hunt, with a broad Northeatern accent), a sympathetic but businesslike therapist who keeps her private life (a husband and teenage son) off limits for discussion. The film offers an interesting portrait of the kind of person who works in this unorthodox profession. Cheryl is a "free spirit" who has never been shy about nudity and sex, but is also immensely compassionate—her husband, before a bout of jealousy seizes him, calls her "a saint." Cheryl's view of Mark is kindly but clinical; she helps him develop "body awareness" and gradually moves him into expressing himself sexually. Her first task is to help him overcome emotional blocks stemming from guilt over the death of his little sister and a particularly retributive view of religion.
Over a series of trysts—er, sessions–— Mark grows more adept and, not surprisingly, attached to Cheryl, writing her a love poem and asking her to meet him for coffee. Cheryl, in turn, is emotionally drawn to her client, who, though perpetually horizontal, has a self-deprecating sense of humor that ladies, except for his pragmatic Asian-American attendant (Moon Bloodgood), seem to find irresistible.
To say The Sessions isn't for everyone is an understatement. It's probably not for most people. But the performances are first-rate, and the subject matter humanely and realistically handled. Just because something is difficult to watch —with the exception of egregious violence—doesn't mean it's not worth watching.