DVD Review - The Sessions

Based on an article by Mark O'Brien, this movie stars John Hawkes as Mark O'Brien, a poet and writer who has Polio. The story takes place in the late eighties when Mark was nearly 40, meaning he was born in the late fifties. The vaccine that prevents Polio wasn't developed until 1955 and its widespread use in the United States wasn't approved until 1961. He got the virus when he was a child, so clearly Mark was someone who fell through the cracks. As a result, Mark has a type of paralysis where he can't move any part of his body below his neck. It's not that he has any feeling or physical sensation below his neck. It's just that his muscles don't work, including his chest muscles. He has to spend the majority of his time in what's called an Iron Lung, which is a mechanical ventilator that allows him to breathe.

At the start of the movie, Mark loses his motorized gourney, which gave him the ability to travel by himself, so now he has to hire men and women to be his attendants to wheel him from here to there, to bathe and feed him. One of those attendants is a beautiful, young girl named Amanda, played by Annika Marks. Amanda has a boyfriend Matt, played by James Martinez (BearCity). Matt gets jealous because he can tell some affections and romantic feelings develop between Mark and Amanda.

Mark gets a writing assignment to do an article about sex and the disabled. While doing research, he meets with a sex therapist who recommends that Mark try what the therapist calls a sex surrogate. He does and ends up calling a sex surrogate named Cheryl Green, played by Oscar winner Helen Hunt (As Good As It Gets) who was nominated for the Academy Award again for this role. Cheryl points out that she's not a prostitute, even though she's technically being paid to have sex with Mark. The difference between what Cheryl does and what a prostitute does is that a prostitute wants repeat business. Cheryl says she's limited instead to six sessions.

Yet, I still don't get what the point is. From the beginning, Mark was never looking to get laid. He was looking for love. Whether it's a sex surrogate or it's a prostitute, any body could give Mark sex, but what he really wants and possibly needs is someone to love him. The problem is that I'm not sure if the character of Mark even knows what love is. He certainly doesn't know what sex is, so it's easy for him to conflate the two.

As such, writer-director Ben Lewin seemingly conflates and confuses the two as well. Given his condition, Mark is a man who very much lives in his head. He has to live in his head. He has no choice, so when he fantasizes about Amanda, he perhaps sees things that aren't there. He obviously ignores the fact that she has a boyfriend and works for him. He doesn't seem to get the inappropriateness of professing his love for her.

What doesn't help is that we never see Mark trying to date anyone outside of those who work for him. Lewin never fully addresses Mark's social life outside the people who work for him. We never see or learn about Mark's family and friends. Where are they? Why are they not around or never call?

This movie has some symmetry to Pretty Woman (1990). A man falls in love with a woman whom he pays to be there. Again, Cheryl isn't a prostitute, but she is being paid to be there. What the movie establishes immediately is that Cheryl has a whole, separate life, a husband, played by Adam Arkin, and a teenage son whom we actually see before we see Cheryl for the first time. The problem is that unlike Pretty Woman, Cheryl keeps Mark at a distance, a distance that is always maintained. Mark, for example, never learns that Cheryl has a husband or a son.

It's troublesome when Mark professes his love for Cheryl because when he did so, I immediately professed that it was ridiculous. How could Mark love Cheryl? He never even knew who she really was. Besides how big her breasts are and what she looked like fully nude, he knew nothing of her personal life or any significant details about her.

It's further troublesome because after realizing Mark's feelings, Cheryl begins to behave as if she perhaps feels the same. Given her job, one would assume that this is something she's encountered before. Does she cry and dig love poems out of the trash of all of her clients? Why is Mark so special or what's so wrong with her life that she would fall for a client? None of these questions are answered, so her actions make no sense. At its basic level, Lewin seems to believe that sex equals love, which I'm not sure is the best lesson for someone who is disabled, especially to Mark's degree.

Two Stars out of Five.
Rated R for strong sexuality, graphic nudity and frank language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 35 mins.


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