The sexual odyssey of the poet Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes, “Winter’s Bone”) is entertaining and wonderfully outlandish. Though as a film “The Sessions” is raunchy and courted by innuendo, it illuminates the brighter, more personal aspect of O’Brien’s physical longing. After contracting polio as a child, he lost muscle control in every joint, tendon and sinew in his body. But he’s a quick-wit and a good listener, a caring friend and a devout Catholic, a 38-year-old man approaching his expiration date and not really knowing what to do about it.
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O’Brien’s disability has confined him to the realm of his observation, and, as a result, what he writes is consistently heartfelt. He’s forced to acknowledge the amenities because the scope of his vision is narrowed. Poetry, for O’Brien, becomes a serious method of articulating detailed reactions and appreciations. The overlying voice narrative — that of O’Brien’s — expounds on the notion of his near-omnipresence, as though a man so limited in body can be so free-ranging in mind.
While the film offers a subtle discourse in finding honest inspiration for poetry, it more actively pursues an erotic, somewhat unrefined avenue. Sex, like poetry, is portrayed as an escape for O’Brien. But unlike the written word, sex demands physical capability, endurance and dictation over one’s movement. Since O’Brien lacks all three, it seems odd that he would be so enthusiastic about chasing after the highly improbable. So he meets with Father Brendan (William H. Macy, “Fargo”), who consoles his aching sexual desire. After discussing the issue, O’Brien decides to consult a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt, “As Good As It Gets”) and seeks to lose his virginity.
O’Brien and his sex surrogate, Cheryl, are allotted six therapy sessions to achieve his ultimate aim of becoming a “made man” — accomplished in sexual intercourse. His grand scheme goes awry as he starts to develop intimate feelings for the woman he’s only seen a few times. To add to the tension, Cheryl grows uncertain of her relationship with her husband and invests what little genuine love she has left into her sessions with O’Brien to make it a true romantic encounter.
Though the film follows the story of love in a fresh and exciting way, it fails to provide a serious motive behind O’Brien’s search for sex. Instead, we are left to gather from sporadic quotes of insight, awkward interactions with disinterested women, and the context of his illness to understand exactly why, at 38 years old, he is so desperate for sex.
In addition, the film is too short to sufficiently cultivate the story. O’Brien’s situation is so unusual, and there could have been more character interaction to illuminate such unorthodoxy. Relationships feel rushed and drawn out. Aspects of his and her desire go unexplained. They reach conclusions before they let the facts of their budding attraction calcify and condense. The stages of their relationship, and of their character development as a whole, transpire without purpose. Because of the film’s fault in the writing, it’s difficult to take anything away after watching it. O’Brien appears to be the same man before and after his sessions.
Despite those downgrades, the film does give some valuable insight into the life of a hopeful and caring poet. One of the lines that explains the situation best comes from a poem of O’Brien’s that is read thematically throughout the film: “Let me touch you with my words.” And after all the wayward bouts of sexual desperation, botched attempts at love and characteristic displeasures, we know that O’Brien tried his best to gain mobility — if not in body, then in mind.