Movie review

The Sessions

The Sessions is an excellent movie — sensitive, smart, sincere; honest and gripping — and with some of the best, most naturalistic yet nuanced, acting I’ve seen in a long time.

Iron lung (Shiloh Museum, Arkansas)
Iron lung (Shiloh Museum, Arkansas)

Quick summary: Mark O’Brien was a journalist and poet, born five years before Salk’s polio vaccine and seven before Sabin’s. He contracted polio at age six, but evidently worked hard to not let his severe disability define or diminish him. He had only three working muscles in his body, and spent most of each day in an iron lung, like the one pictured here. A documentary, Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien, came out three years before he died in 1999 of post-polio syndrome (the 35-minute documentary can be seen on line here). He pushed and pushed and pushed in the intervening 49 years: to go to college, to go to graduate school, to write, to publish, to advocate for the disabled.

And to have sex. That last is the subject of this movie.

At age 38, O’Brien hired Cheryl Cohen-Green, a sexual surrogate, so he could experience sex. What he really wanted, the movie suggests, was love. He apparently met both goals.

The Sessions refers to the two-hour weekly appointments Mark and Cheryl shared, during which she  initiated him, painlessly and professionally, into the mysteries of sex and sensuality, banishing his Catholic guilt, insecurity, and feelings of unworthiness. He is touched — in all senses of the word — and he soars.

Writer/director Ben Lewis has kept his world compact. Which makes sense, as Mark can only see people when they stand directly in his line of vision. And each of the people who make up his world — his two assistants, his priest, Cheryl, a few others — understand this. The extreme sensitivity and care they take to accommodate him paradoxically derives from  a casual acceptance of his limitations. And that is so real. When we know and like someone, we unconsciously — from practice, intuition, or some combination of these — stoop to hear their low voice, slow our pace to match theirs. That’s what accommodation really means. It’s not going out of your way in some PC or self-righteous manner; it’s just simple graciousness.

The conflict in the movie is thus not really between the people. It’s between Mark and his disability, and people’s efforts to accommodate that disability. This is displayed brilliantly in two wordless moments that I found to be tightly packed full of insight and power.

The first comes when Mark asks his priest, played by William H. Macy, if his intention to hire a surrogate is morally sound. We don’t know this priest yet; neither does Mark. And the questions he asks Mark indicate that he is approaching the issue from a standard Roman Catholic frame of reference involving temptation, sin, and scripture.

But then he looks up for a long moment at the crucifix on the wall, looks and thinks and thinks and looks. Layering through the real meanings of denial of the flesh when all pleasures have been denied, of sin when the blameless suffer. And you feel Macy in his silence work through this, to emerge, not to forbid this action, but with a brief assurance of Jesus’ countenance of it.

Similarly, Helen Hunt, playing Cheryl, takes a wordless pause — not even a very long one — as she considers a dilemma Mark has innocently incurred. She has asked him what they should do at their next session, and he has answered that he wants her to reach climax too. And as with Macy’s priest, Hunt’s sex therapist has been challenged by Mark’s disability to embrace the spirit and not the letter of her profession and convictions. She hesitates only imperceptibly, and I wish I could find a still that captures that because Hunt conveyed it beautifully. Her brisk efficiency momentarily challenged before finding new footing, new accommodation.

It is a smart smart movie.

Side note: In researching the iron lung, I came across this Smithsonian American History Museum website, and on this site, there is a most fascinating discussion of historical photos (, from which I quote:

Every photograph is both truthful and deceptive. Every photograph is edited by the photographer. Each photograph is taken for some purpose, and that purpose determines what is shown and how it is shown (by the selection of such things as camera angle, framing, and composition). As time passes, it becomes difficult to retrieve the photographer’s intent as well as the way in which people of another era would have viewed and understood an image. We must rely on historical knowledge to see through a photograph to the evidence it reveals. These images were selected to illustrate some of the intricacies in reading historical photographs.

and it then proceeds to analyze several images to show their biases and limits. Such a useful reminder.

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