Based on the true story of Mark O’brien who was ravaged by polio and at age six was paralyzed from the neck down. He could only breathe with the aid of an iron lung, where he spent most of his life as a poet and journalist. His parents discovered that polio survivors only had an average life expectancy of 18 months when institutionalized, so they refused to subject their son to this sentence of a short life, instead opting to keep him at home, essentially giving up their lives so he could have one.
“The Sessions” chronicles Mark’s decision at age 38 that he wanted to know what it was like to have sex and lose his virginity. After a failed proposal to one of his 24 hour caretakers who he had developed a strong attraction to, upon the suggestion of a doctor who had to resuscitate him after a power failure almost ended his life due to his iron lung not functioning in the middle of the night, Mark decided to solicit the services of a sex surrogate. Being a devout Christian, which is ironic given the tragic circumstances of his existence, (Mark said he had to believe in God so he would have someone to blame for the joke that was his life.) he went to his priest for advice and his blessing of his plans to have sinful fornication outside of marriage. After serious consideration of the question, his priest, played by William H. Macy tells Mark, “I think God will give you a free pass on this one.” and prays with Mark that his journey will be successful and fulfilling.
The role of his sex surrogate is masterfully played by Helen Hunt, who brings so much emotion, beauty, and raw passion to the role, you almost forget that she is totally nude much of the time. The biggest difference between Mark and most other quadriplegics who have generally suffered spinal injuries is that Mark’s only problem was that his muscles didn’t function, but he had full sensation and was otherwise fully functional. John Hawkes in the role of Mark gives a spectacular performance. I can’t imagine what he had to go through to get his normally healthy body to the thin, emaciated, muscleless form of Mark O’brien who spent his entire life outside of his iron lung on a roll-around gurney, fitted with breathing assistance equipment.
Cheryl Cohen Green, Mark’s surrogate therapist made it clear to Mark in the beginning that to keep it professional and therapeutic, their sessions together would be limited to a maximum of six sessions. However, after their 3rd time together upon achieving successful intercourse, both parties realized that they had developed strong emotional feelings for the other. Mark, never being one to hide or not express his feelings, sent Cheryl a love poem which was intercepted by her lazy, emotionless husband. After receiving a tongue lashing from her husband, Mark and Cheryl agreed after their fourth session together, where Mark insisted his goal was for them to achieve mutual orgasm, that it was best to end their times together before things went too far emotionally. Mark had achieved his goal of “knowing a woman in the Biblical sense” and continued to live to the age of 49, fell in love with another woman, and lived long enough to see a documentary of his life win an Academy Award in 1996.
I thoroughly enjoyed “The Sessions” because the story is engrossing, the acting is impeccable, and it is inspiring to see someone who life dealt such overwhelming obstacles refuse to not live his life to the fullest extent possible.
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