Far too often when the words “Based on a True Story” are bandied about, disaster is soon to follow. Those movies seem to be based on people, but there’s no sense of the real person or even a fully dimensional character. Luckily, The Sessions, with the help of John Hawkes and Helen Hunt, work together to defy those odds and set the record straight. To say that The Sessions is “based on” the life of Mark O’Brien is to downplay Mr. O’Brien’s zeal for life and to do a disservice to John Hawkes, who truly honors the memory of the man. The Sessions does its best to encapsulate every element of O’Brien’s experience in its 95-minute running time.
Needless to say, the story of The Sessions is unusual. Truth be told, I’d never heard of a sex surrogate before this film. The whole concept seemed… unreal. While it may seem cliché to say, this film is honestly a revelatory experience. While some younger viewers by distracted by the dated elements, such as O’Brien’s paralysis as a result of polio or the more frivolous fashion choices in the film, as a human story, there is plenty to be learned from this film. But the film never loses itself to an overly clinical approach to its subject matter. The Sessions frames Mark O’Brien’s sexual escapade in an all too human story.
A huge debt of gratitude is owed to John Hawkes for that. Hawkes commits to the role of Mark O’Brien. While this may seem like a simple element to the film, when you think of the emotional range he has to display while being so limited physically, it is nothing short of astounding. However, Hawkes does more than become the man, he does justice to the man. This is largely in part due to his on-screen pairings. William H. Macy livens the film up with his tongue-in-cheek performance as a Catholic priest and Mark’s confessor. The film uses Macy sparingly, unfortunately, but his moments in the film are among the highlights. Another criminally underrated, but nonetheless dazzling addition to The Sessions is Moon Bloodgood. However, Helen Hunt undeniably pulls focus in her performance as sex surrogate, Cheryl. Hunt is intoxicating and, shockingly enough, effortlessly sexy and simultaneously charismatic. While the film never fully explores her to the extent that I myself fell in love with her, it is clear to see how Mark could develop such feelings for a woman like her.
Even more impressive than the performances is the subject matter itself, though. Hollywood has churned out its fair share of sex comedies and I’ve been known to be quite immature on the topic of sex myself, but The Sessions never panders or downplays that element of the film. The film never goes for cheap laughs at the expense of any of its characters. Rather, the film illustrates sex as the life-changing event that it can be. Never once did I find myself laughing at the representation of sex. Instead, The Sessions treats sex as something transcendent. It isn’t relegated to something sexy or even something scientific. Instead, it is a human experience.
The Sessions is a movie that, by its plot description, has no right to be as good as it is. Never cheap or tawdry, The Sessions is heartwarming and humorous in all the right places. The Sessions is out on blu ray and DVD, with several behind-the-scenes featurettes and deleted scenes.