By Joan Ellis
If someone suggests a movie about a sex therapist and a paralyzed man, might you say, “Not for me, no thanks?” Don’t.
The Sessions has been made by a team of actors and filmmakers who manage to avoid every pitfall that might accompany that premise. No prurience, no graphic scenes, no sentimentality, no histrionics. What they have done instead is to tell a tale of powerful emotions conveyed with great restraint by an extraordinary cast. This is indeed as good as it gets.
With short outings as reprieve, Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) has lived in an iron lung since polio struck him as a young boy. He has surface sensation but no muscle mobility that leaves him completely dependent on a series of caretakers. He makes his way to the church of Father Brendan (William H. Macy) where he finds not just a priest for confession but an adviser and finally, a friend.
This is the story of the tough, harshly limited world of a physically dependent man who, at 38, decides he needs to lose his virginity before he dies. Enter, Helen Hunt as Cheryl, a sex therapist specializing in disabled patients.
There is a limit of six on the number of sessions she will give him, and as we watch the tangle of emotions unfold, we understand why. When Cheryl ask, “What’s it like being a poet?” and Mark answers, “It’s a way of being inside my head where I spend most of my time,” we are surprisingly shattered. These two have reached us.
In a very tough role with no mobility of limb or facial expression, John Hawkes shows the agony of Mark’s life as well as the joy he feels when he connects with the woman he loves. Humor is both his lifeline and his path to connection.
Annika Marks is lovely as Amanda, an early caretaker who loves Mark in her own way but can’t return the love he confesses for her. Moon Bloodgood plays Vera who takes Amanda’s place. Contained and slightly distant, she wins us as she puts down roots of loyalty.
William H. Macy, he of the wonderfully rutted face and wondrous ability, creates a priest who listens and then steps outside his Catholicism to counsel his new friend. As Mark describes the details of his therapy, Macy’s priceless expressions are those of a man undone by the graphics of description yet determined to stay the course.
In Cheryl, Helen Hunt creates a woman whose home life with husband Josh (Adam Arkin) and their son is as normal as her professional one is unusual. Naked throughout most of her scenes, she is unquestionably brave, but she appears so completely comfortable with it that she creates comfort for the audience. Professional and calm, she conveys deep emotion with nearly imperceptible shifts of expression; it is a performance laced with compassion. It is Helen Hunt who lifts the movie beyond all expectation.
Joan Ellis’ address on the Internet, which contains her review library, is JoanEllis.com.