“The Sessions” is based on the life of poet and journalist Mark O’Brien. In 1997, there was an Academy Award-winning documentary on his life and journalism career called “Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien.” O’Brien was striken with polio as a child and lived all of his life, save for a few hours each day, in an iron lung. He eventually died on July 4th, 1999, of complications from bronchitis. He was 49.
In “The Sessions,” O’Brien is played brilliantly by John Hawkes. His performance and interpretation of his seriously infirm character reminded me of Daniel Day-Lewis in “My Left Foot.”
“The Sessions” is based on magazine article O’Brien wrote in 1990 called “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate.” It was about O’Brien’s need to experience sexual intimacy before he died and the therapist he hired that specialized in this type of case.
The sex therapist is played by Helen Hunt. It is a remarkably brave and delicate role, and she handles it with the respect and honesty O’Brien’s story deserves.
O’Brien was a devout Catholic, and therefore struggled with this important personal need in his life. He enlisted the advice of his parish priest, played by William H. Macy, who eventually tells him, “I know in my heart that God will give you a free pass on this one. Go for it.” Don’t think that was official Catholic doctrine at the time.
Moon Bloodgood appears as O’Brien’s personal helper during the time he is in therapy and gives a very credible and important performance.
Hunt’s character is a married woman with a young son. The role calls for several explicit but respectful nude scenes for Hunt, and she handles them ideally. “The Sessions” is intelligently written with nice levels of comic relief. It is never gratuitous and always considerate of Mark O’Brien’s life. The movie isn’t really about sex as much as it is about a human being’s right to be a full and complete person, and most of all, it’s about the human condition and the importance of caring.