We’re all ugly, at least to our own eyes. We’re all ashamed of how we look, inside our own heads, and so in some small way we’ve all had our bodies betray us, just never quite like Mark O’Brian’s did him when it allowed polio to set in. Physically O’Brian is perfect in many ways, his body is all there and besides the muscles functions normally, but the Polio has perverted his form in ways that Cronenberg could only dream of. It may not be kosher to say this but when you first see him sprawled out on his motorized gurney in the films opening shots it comes as a rather shocking sight, irregardless of whether or not it is actually just John Hawkes acting atrophied.
His spine is curved in a way that subverts his entire shape and leaves him with only lips, eyes and mind under his control; the thought of maybe being trapped like that myself is a crushing one. Neither of those though are Mark’s main problem, they’re not the conflict at the core of this film, that would be the perversions inside his head. See, Mark O’Brian is horny and given his situation sating those kinds of urges requires a helping hand. Enter Helen Hunt.
The sessions spoken of in the title take place between Mark and a now married sex surrogate played here by Hunt. A surrogate is a woman who, not unlike a prostitute, is paid for having sex with strangers but does so with the lack of tenderness and cold technicality of any other physical therapist. It is her job to teach the patient how to function like an average adult, not to fulfill any of their fantasies in regards to the female sex. In theory theirs is a purely utilitarian exercise, in practice however it is hard for the patient not to have their emotions evoked, not to get attached.
The way that the film handles these titular sessions is stunningly brave and surprising untitillating. Unlike it’s lead the film doesn’t shy away from sexuality, it doesn’t stutter in its presence. The actors undress as the characters would, they do everything that the characters do but they do not do it alone; they have an audience of (hopefully) millions crowding around the bed. It is then an incredibly intimate experience that we are all let in to witness, but thankfully not an overly erotic one. Viewing the film is made much the same as undergoing a session, it is treated with the same tact and respect by director Ben Lewin and so despite the nature of the content there is nothing unseemly about seeing this with a crowd. The only difference that Lewin would like us to – and we most definitely do – get attached.
The script and direction here are both strong; the film is shot stylishly enough to keep things interesting but never in a way that draws attention away from the story, which is written with a nice amount of multi-dimensionality and alloyed by some wry wit, but it is the excellence of the ensemble that makes this movie. Like the subtle piano-lead score Lewin is simply there to corral and catalyze the cast he has assembled. Going in it was almost assured that Hawkes would be amazing – he is already an actor that I love and this was hallmarked as being his best role yet – and while he certainly is he doesn’t steal the show; his performance is suitably small and subtle and this allows the supports to all stand ably alongside him.
Interestingly though Mark himself does dominate the screen time in an interesting and unexpected way. Yes he is the lead so it shouldn’t seem so strange, but because the film does such a great job of rounding out its smaller characters I did find the short snippets of sub-plots to be a little disconcerting structurally. The ending also had a similar effect; i won’t say too much, just that it occurs quite suddenly, skipping over what appeared to be a very interesting section of Mark’s story. I wonder whether or not there was a version of the script that went into a little more detail about the past histories of the Priest, the Nurses, the self-employed Philosopher and even the surrogate herself. When it originally debuted at Sundance the film actually went by the title of The Surrogate which would only have exacerbated this issue for me, the current title though explains exactly why we only see what we do; this is the story of their sessions together and it tells that story superbly.
Another niggling point I feel the need to pick at is in regards to the film as fiction versus being a true story. Lewin based this heavily on a piece written by the real Mark and presumably events unfold in the script quite similarly to how they did in real life; there are though a few beats that stand out as staged, as cinematic contrivances, that are there to make this a movie and not a re-enactment. There is nothing wrong with this approach of course and for the most part these moments are as solid and effecting as all that surround them, it’s just that what makes most of those work is their veritas and very genuine emotion and so the two are almost inherently immiscible.
The notion of sex surrogacy is at its core something of a compromise – better than nothing but not quite the same as the real thing – and so it only seems fitting then that a film about the subject would be similarly torn. The Sessions is such a singular picture, utterly unlike anything that you have seen before, and was shot without the funding of a studio and so it seems strange that it would take these slight steps away from its main approach but, and i want to stress this, stranger still these nits were never damaging to the final product for me. In a way these flaws simply make it a more fascinating film like Mark’s make him a more fascinating character. We’re all ugly, we all have imperfections but if you love what’s on the inside then it becomes easy to see past them (pardon the cheese) and as people did with Mark you will find it hard not to love what’ occurs inside The Sessions.