[22 October 2012]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“I believe in a God with a wicked sense of humor,” says Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), “since He made me in His own image.” Mark—a writer and a polio survivor who spends much of his life on his back, inside an iron lung—is frequently buoyed by his own sense of humor, you learn early in The Sessions, as well as his capacity to surprise and charm, reassure and sometimes unnerve the people around him—in this particular case, Father Brendan (William H. Macy), who means to counsel him.
The two men embark on a series of sessions, Mark in his iron lung and Father Brendan in his robes, sometimes confessional but more often a kind of banter, pondering the trials of everyday existence and the function of faith. As the men so ponder, Mark raises a specific question, having to do with women. He’d thinking he’d like to have sex with one, because, he says, at 38, he’s approaching his “sell-by date.” Father Brendan smiles and blanches, just a little: it’s a question he might have anticipated, but maybe he didn’t. It’s true that Mark isn’t married, but, well, Father Brendan can’t imagine God wouldn’t give him “a pass” on this one. Now Mark only has to figure out how to make it happen.
At first, he considers sex with women he knows, say, his beautiful young assistant Amanda (Annika Marks). But as much as they enjoy each other’s company and as much as they might actually love each other, she’s not attracted to him in “that way.” Plan B involves another sort of relationship, with a professional.
And with that, Berkeley-based sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt) becomes The Sessions’ major metaphor, at once a means for Mark to be educated, experienced and fulfilled, and also, a means for the film to think through the relationship between mind and body—in terms at once mythic and concrete, spiritual and intellectual. The film structures this relationship through Mark’s discussions with Father Brendan and his meetings with Cheryl, as he works a similar kind of magic on both, challenging them to reconsider their own bodies and spirits, inspiring them to imagine beyond what they think they know. That’s not to say he’s a radical per se: while Mark resists expectations of “the disabled” and he’s quickly frustrated by others’ ignorance or pity, he also respects the drama and ritual of both church and sex. Just so, he gets dressed up to meet with Cheryl and lets her dictate terms (she won’t talk about her personal life or feelings), and he mostly accommodates Father Brendan’s mostly decorous sensibilities—until he doesn’t.
It’s this “until he doesn’t” part than makes Mark a little bit magical for the people around him. It’s to Hawkes’ enormous credit that Mark doesn’t become cloying and his pain and dire risk at various moments (as when a power failure one night means his iron lung shuts down and he drops the phone he might have used to call for help, raising the question of why he sleeps alone in his apartment in an iron lung that hardly looks state of the art to begin). Instead, Mark poses questions—and only sometimes verbally. With his bent form and his literal difficulty breathing, he inspires people around him to rethink their own existences, how they live inside their own bodies or share themselves with others.
Just so, as Cheryl sits in her office, dictating her notes on the sessions with Mark (the plan, her usual, is for six), both and she become increasingly aware of how her job—which she very precisely distinguishes from prostitution—affects her own sense of intimacy and trust. Her husband Josh (Adam Arkin) is a philosopher, which the movie doesn’t quite investigate, but does position as another facet of its central puzzle, this ever shifting relationship between body and soul. And Mark’s assistant Vera (Moon Bloodgood), patient and impressed with Mark, finds some time to reflect on her own body, which she tends to keep covered up sweaters and baggy pants, as the clerk (W. Earl Brown) at the hotel where she takes Mark to meet with Cheryl flirts with her.
Vera is something of a missed opportunity here, as the film includes her as one of the several women who find Mark charismatic and life-changing in different ways. The narrative structure is awkward, as the effort of inclusion ends up feeling episodic rather than organic. Still, Vera’s place in this line-up is especially poignant. Even though you learn precious little about her—you don’t see her at home and you don’t know what she does during her time off—her relationship with Mark turns increasingly personal.
In part, this intimacy is a function of the job, as Vera tends to all his physical and most of his other needs, knows his body better than anyone, even Mark himself. But even as what she knows and how she lives remain off-screen, her comprehension of Mark, as well as everyone she watches interact with him, from Father Brendan and Cheryl, to Mark’s eventual wife and even Amanda, whom Vera has replaced—is repeatedly and delicately visible in Bloodgood’s performance. Vera spends the bulk of her time on screen waiting for Mark or preparing him for an event, brief exchanges or moments that are transformed, in her face, into little revelations.