The Sessions
“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 self-awareness.
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, Texas