To err in making a sex comedy about the disabled is human. To succeed is divine.
With its risky subject matter, who could have imagined a film like The Sessions ever materializing? Then again, our culture has permitted not one but two Human Centipede films to materialize, so the sky is the limit. Poet/journalist Mark O'Brien (portrayed wonderfully by John Hawkes) really did exist and he really was as coherent, charming, and functionally impaired as he is portrayed. He really was tapped to write about sex and the disabled, even though he was a 38-year-old virgin when he was assigned the project. And yes, he really did meet with a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt), who showed him the ways of carnal pleasure.
Writer/director Ben Lewin, who contracted polio at six years old and has lived his life on crutches, sees directly into O'Brien and sees not a man having a disabled experience, but a tender soul having a deeply human experience. A veteran of Australian film, Lewin is relatively unknown in the rest of the world, rendering a perfect underdog for an underdog tale. Despite his shortcomings, O'Brien is an everyman dealing with his Catholic guilt in the pursuit of physical and spiritual connection with a women. Lots of people, disabled or “normal,” can relate.
What helps keep the story grounded is the supporting cast, led by William H. Macy as the neutral-minded Father Brendan who encourages O'Brien (his blonde locks just scream aging hippie), claiming that God would give him a “free pass.” Still, despite this, O'Brien often feels that his body is cursed; the first few sessions are so disastrous that, in the hands of a less sincere director, would be played for laughs. Instead, they are obstacles that are gratifying when successfully solved. They are problems that, whether we admit it or not, are ones we often face behind closed doors.
In the end, that's what separates The Sessions from other films about the disabled. The cliché of most of the other movies is the constant barrier between disabled and “normal,” and the crossing of the barrier to see things from the disabled side, or the struggle for the disabled to exist in a functional world. My Life Foot this isn't (actually, it's more My Left Nut).
For a 95 minute movie, The Sessions takes its time, and doesn't succumb to Oscar-bait speeches or grandiose manipulation. Rarely does subtlety go rewarded, but it's hard to recoil from its sweetness and accessibility. John Hawkes is sweetness and accessibility defined, seeing the acrobatic spirit within a static body. It's difficult to not be as charmed by him as the women he meets. When he is vulnerable, it comes from a real place; after all, our own insecurities are often as crippling as any medical condition.