The Sessions is the sort of film that gets a lot of publicity when it first appears at film festivals. A taboo subject—sex surrogates for the severely disabled—is yoked to a middle-aged, mid-list actress (Helen Hunt) making a comeback by appearing completely nude in about a third of her scenes with a highly regarded character actor (John Hawkes), who is doing a star turn playing the kind of role that wins Oscars.
Hawkes plays Mark O'Brien, a California man who received publicity in the 1970s for graduating college despite being completely immobilized below the neck by polio—a condition that necessitates spending most of his life inside an iron lung. There's a lot of smiling through tears here, but Hawkes doles out small measures of the character's bitterness and self-pity, too.
But there's really not a lot of conflict in this film, and certainly no surprises. Most of O'Brien's emotional dilemmas are expressed in exchanges with his priest, who is supposed to be repressed and deprived himself. However, given that the part is played by William Macy's long, flowing blond hair, it's hard to believe that this sunshine priest has never experienced pleasure. (Macy himself seems to know that he's just a marquee name filling out the cast, and throws away his entire performance accordingly.)
The heart of The Sessions may be just and good, but it's really after-school-special stuff. My respect for the film was further diminished when it failed to show Hawkes' penis in any state of arousal. I mean, Hunt gamely takes it all off, but when it comes to her scene partner and the one part of his body that can move and change shape and size, matters are kept discreetly off-screen. Some things are just too dangerous to show.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Dreams and freedom."