The Sessions is a Lifetime movie that somehow managed to acquire a limited theatrical release. It tells the story of a man who was afflicted with polio as a child, and currently cannot move any part of his body below the neck. He, however, feels that his days are numbered, and has decided that it would probably be a good time to have sex for the first time. So, it’s The 40 Year Old Virgin played straight and instead of an inept man, it’s one that’s disabled. Oh, and it’s based on a true story, too, because … I guess they needed somewhere from which to base this idea.
John Hawkes plays this man, Mark O’Brien, who practically lives in an iron lung. Depending on the day, he can spend three to four hours without its benefits, but will soon start to run out of oxygen — his lungs don’t function normally, after all. He has to be taken care of by assistants, the main one being Vera (Moon Bloodgood), who cleans him, takes him places, and does whatever needs doing. She’s not thrilled with the job, initially, but grows to like it.
The reason for O’Brien’s decision isn’t terribly clear. One day, he just decides that this is what he wants to do. He seeks out a sex specialist, played by Helen Hunt, who tells him that, while she does in fact accept money for (possible) sex, she is not a prostitute. They’re different professions, she claims, although the only difference we’re given is that she’s only allowed, I presume legally, to have six sessions with a client. After that, she has to be out of his life. A prostitute has no such limit.
That is the bulk of the movie right there. We go through these sessions, intercut with Mark explaining to an all-too-keen priest (William H. Macy) how they’ve been going. This happens for a good hour of the movie. The first fifteen minutes establish the situation, while the last fifteen wrap it all up. The ending feels very rushed, and with only a $1 million budget, I have to assume that a lack of money was the main reason. We could definitely have used some more scenes at the end.
This is a sappy, sweet movie about a man with a single ambition before he dies. The man existed in real life, and wrote an article about his experience. The only reason it’s not on television and instead has been released in theaters is that Helen Hunt, for about half of her time on-screen, is naked. It’s not an exploitative film — the subjects of sex and nudity are handled with care — but there are just some things you can’t show on the television, and full frontal nudity is one of them. Hence, more than likely, the theatrical release.
However, this is something that will play just as well on small screens — and perhaps even better — as on the ones you’ll find in your local theater. It has nothing about it that tells you to seek it out at the cinema, and is the kind of intimate, personal movie that would perhaps be better watched on a weekday night, with you and a half-eaten box of chocolates wanting to learn more about the human condition. This doesn’t benefit from a crowd, which could actually lessen the experience. You don’t allow yourself to get as deeply afflicted if other people are around you.
This isn’t to say that The Sessions is bad, just that it had no reason to be released in theaters, and you have even less of a reason to go see it. If you’re really interested, it’ll come out in a couple of months on home video, and you can sob your little heart out then. It’s still a good movie, and I enjoyed it for the most part, but I can’t at all recommend checking it out during its theatrical run, unless you can guarantee a screening all to yourself.
The best parts of the film come from the humorous moments. Mark is a likable guy, and while his affliction is treated well, he makes light of it more often than not. He realizes its severity, but if you can’t laugh at yourself, who can you laugh at? The whole film is filled with small little moments of humor, and there are a couple of big laugh-out-loud points, too. It’s not without drama, but it’s more of a light comedy than a serious film.
John Hawkes is another bright spot, having to act almost entirely with his head turned to one side, lying on a bed, and without the use of the rest of his body. He made me believe that he did have to write using a pen in his mouth, and that he wasn’t able to move his body. Helen Hunt goes all in as the sex therapist, while William H. Macy plays a mostly comedic role as the priest who listens to everything — and I do mean everything — that Mark has to say. It’s a trifecta of very good performances.
The Sessions is a good, if unspectacular movie. It shouldn’t be in theaters. It is not watched best in a theater. It’s one of those few movies — Lifetime being the best example of this — that is better on the small screen, in the comfort of your own house. The director, Ben Lewin, is a polio survivor himself, and you can tell it’s an immensely personal film. You can only get the kinds of moments that the movie strives for when watching it alone, free from the distractions of other people. The performances will suck you in, and it’s funny and lighthearted enough to not be a drag to watch, but it’s not a great watch and one that will wait patiently before finding its audience on home video.