Sessions, The (2012): Tale of Physicaly Disabled, Initiated into Sex by Helen Hunt

It’s never too late to lose your virginity and experience sexual gratification, even if you are a male pushing 40. That’s the central notion (and positive message) of the emotionally touching, well-acted indie film, “The Sessions.”

Add to it the idea that the male, Mark O’Brien, is physically disabled, and you have got a heartfelt, realistic, and strangely optimistic tale, which tackles an unusual and unlikely subject with impressive tenderness, humanity, and occasionally even humor,

World premiering at the 2012 Sundance Film Fest, in January, “The Sessions” is now released by Fox Searchlight in a platform mode, that with critical support and open-mindedness on the part of viewers, could become one of the most commercial indies of the year.

Based on the poignantly optimistic autobiographical writings of California–based journalist and poet Mark O’Brien, “The Sessions” centers on a man, who has lived most of his life in an iron lung and is now determined, at age 38, feel what most other men experience at a much younger age.

The tale unfolds a physical and emotional journey, during which Mark sets out to make his dream come true, assisted by two kind individuals, his therapist and his priest.

Mark O’Brien’s article, “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate,” served as the inspiration or blueprint for the film’s screenplay, which added some events and fictionalized some facts and characters.

Mark had given up hope of ever having the kind of close and enduring relationship with a woman that non-disabled people have.  The written expression of this notion assumed a sad, despondent and pessimistic tone, but the piece’s melancholic ending led to unexpected events and joyful meeting with a woman named Susan Fernbach.

As a result of that fateful encounter, Susan became Mark’s lover, companion and literary collaborator  in the last few years of his life, which proved to be magical and satisfying for both of them.  At one point, Mark observes, “I was undressed, she was undressed, and it seemed normal. How startling! I had half-expected God–or my parents–to keep this moment from happening.”

Moreover, Susan’s insights and intimate observations of Mark made it possible to construct a different, more complex screen character than anyone could have imagined.

The other person who changed the screenplay was meeting Cheryl Cohen Greene, the original surrogate, now a grandmother and still practicing her craft.  The candor and detail of her memories helped redefine a biopic, turning it more into an intimate and moving relationship feature

Due to the similar thematic premise, inevitable comparisons will be made with Jim Sheridan’s “My Left Foot, starring Daniel Day-Lewis in an Oscar-winning performance.  Sheridan’s 1989 fact-based film is a better, fuller, deeper, more accomplished drama. In contrast, “The Sessions” is not only a movie about disabled sexuality, but one that suffers itself from its therapeutic sensibility and repetitive structure, which to some extent is dictated by the subject matter.

Even so, on its own terms, “The Sessions,” a low-budgte feature, is a pretty good movie, largely due to the superlative acting of Helen Hunt and John Hawkes (Oscar nominated for “Winter’s Bone”).

In this role, which represents pne of her most fully realized performances to date, Helen Hunt proves that winning the 1997 Best Actress Oscar for “As Good As It Gets” was not a fluke, that given the right material, she can be a terrific actress, up there with other thespians of her generation, such as Holly Hunter and Frances McDormand.