There’s a great line in My Dinner with Andre where Andre says, ‘…you see a terrorist on television: he looks just like a terrorist,’ and it’s so true the way people tend to resemble the archetypes for their various walks of life. That said, William H. Macy, with his flowing blond mullet and the complexion of Iggy Pop, is no one’s idea of a Roman Catholic priest. Yet his offbeat but sincere Father Brendan works well and sets the tone for this quirky and likeable movie.
When severely disabled Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) comes in for confession, which segues into more informal counselling, Father Brendan goes against the church’s edict on pre-martial sex by sanctioning Mark’s quest to lose his virginity by means of a sex surrogate. It sounds like a recipe for a feel-good fiction, bordering on comedy, but actually it’s a true story, based on the writings of O’Brien, who was a poet and journalist.
Comparisons to The 40-Year-Old Virgin are unavoidable, especially as Mark, at thirty-eight, is in the same age ballpark. Clearly this is the watershed time of life for this particular piece of catching up with the rest of the human race, for if you haven’t done it by now and you don’t start making a valiant effort, you probably never will. But Mark has more reasons than most for the protracted postponement. Due to polio in childhood, he is virtually unable to move his body below the neck, requiring constant care, time in an iron lung to aid his breathing and a gurney for transportation. Nevertheless that most significant part of his anatomy as a male is in full working order, making him a suitable, if difficult, case for surrogacy treatment.
So Mark meets up with Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt), who is married with a son and emphasises that what she does is not prostitution. It is, in fact, practical therapy, involving body awareness exercises and tackling such issues as fear and low self-confidence, together with looking at unresolved issues from the past. There are comedic moments when Mark displays all the trepidation of a callow teenager, destined to get everything wrong despite the best help; and also moments of breakthrough when he learns for the first time what it is to experience the rewards of physical closeness. These scenes involve full-frontal nudity from Helen Hunt, and this seems dramatically right and natural and not the least bit gratuitous. The acting and screen chemistry between Hawkes and Hunt is note perfect, and they carefully evoke pathos whilst avoiding bathos – a most difficult balancing act.
Gradually Mark gains in confidence and after the success of the mission, one of his chat-up lines is, ‘I’m not a virgin.’ At thirty-eight he has all the cockiness of a no-longer-so-callow teenager, now that he’s the right side of that all-important line and has proved himself and is finally a ‘real man’. But as in any therapy there are complications of transference and counter-transference, and when sex is involved that introduces a whole new wildcard element. By showing sexual intercourse in extremis, as it were, the film casts a fresh light on the whole gamut of the activity, and herein lies the heart of its excellence.
With good supporting performances from Moon Bloodgood as Vera, Mark’s carer, and Annika Marks as Amanda, an almost girlfriend, as well as the three principals, it is a finely acted piece. The Sessions recalls the indomitable spirit of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, where against all the odds the human struggle to achieve goes on. It has already enjoyed considerable success for a small low budget movie, and this is doubtless because it plays so well across the spectrum of emotions, being alternately funny, sad, tender, uncomfortable and ultimately very moving.