“The Sessions” is a multi-layered film that defies categorization. It’s
also difficult for a Christian writer to say whether this one is acceptable
for church audiences. It entirely depends on your own sensibilities. It’s
possible that you could be moved to tears by the lovely relational dynamics
here. It’s also possible that you could be offended at the way the sexuality
is presented. Or both at the same time.
Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) contracted polio as a child, and has lived in an
iron lung since he was a boy. He cherishes these fond childhood memories of
playing on a beach with his sister. Later we find out that his sister died
shortly thereafter, and Mark still blames himself, because his parents were so
preoccupied in taking care of him.
Mark is now 43 years old, and his parents are deceased. He credits his
relative longevity to their extraordinary care, but now he’s dependent on
paid caregivers. Mark can only move his mouth. He can temporarily be out of
the iron lung, for a couple of hours, as long as he has access to portable
oxygen. But, of course, he has to have assistance with that, as well.
But despite this incredible handicap, Mark is a surprisingly likable person.
He possesses a witty, self-effacing kind of humor. He seems gentle and
accepting. He is curious about what’s going on around him, and tries to
learn and experience as much as he possibly can. Of course his primary
relationship is with his caregiver. And the first one we meet seems formidable
and gruff, and acts like she’s feeding a dog in a cage, with about as much
joy and finesse. We’re glad that Mark has the temerity to find someone else,
someone kinder and gentler. And who will laugh with him a little.
Mark is also a very religious person. He has frequent conversations with the
local priest, Father Brendan (a long-haired William H. Macy). At first, Father
Brendan seems a bit bewildered by Mark’s frequent conversations about
sexuality, but soon his native sensitivity takes over, trumping whatever
high-handed moralism the Church may have infused into him. Father Brendan even
confesses to his immobile penitent that he’s not certain what would qualify,
exactly, as sin in this instance (an interesting theological discussion in
itself). As viewers, we’re just glad that Father Brendan acts less like a
priest and more like a friend. As Christian moviegoers, we are absolutely
astounded that a parish cleric is such a positive role model in a contemporary
Hollywood film. When’s the last time that happened?
Mark becomes obsessed with the idea that he is a forty-something virgin, and
wonders aloud if that deficiency in his life experience can be addressed.
He’d prefer love, of course, but that’s eluded him, and given his
circumstances, he’s curious about the sexual act, and he appears to have
that capacity, but he’s not sure, actually, because he’s had neither
occasion nor opportunity.
Enter Cheryl (Helen Hunt), the sex therapist. She does not consider herself a
hooker, per se, but instead, someone who provides sexual therapy to people
with particular psychological needs, for a limited time. And yes, she accepts
compensation, but is careful to maintain a kind of clinical emotional distance
from her clients. Or so she thinks.
Helen Hunt, the actress, has to act like her own nakedness on screen is
secondary to the demands of the role she is playing, which is to be as free
and open as possible about nudity, sexuality, and physical intimacy. Cheryl,
the sex therapist, begins to develop an emotional attachment to the unique
needs of this extraordinary client. And we, as viewers, find ourselves rooting
for him, as well, that he might actually gain a life experience heretofore
unavailable to him, as part of an unexpected foray into self-discovery and
So, what we have here is this volatile montage of religion and sex, with a
little baseball conversation thrown in, complete with numerous baseball
innuendos. Whew. “The Sessions” is truly a unique cinematic experience.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Minister, St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Irving,