Every once in a while – okay, make that every awards season – a movie comes along that’s both really good and almost impossible to persuade anyone to see without your pitching it to them in a similar manner as the director must have originally done to the money men (and women). And yes, when I heard that in The Sessions, 53 year-old actor John Hawkes, who looks his age, was playing a 38 year-old, I too recoiled violently from my computer screen, causing my home-office chair to bumpily back over an old towel thrown upon my floor some days prior. Were I just a guy on the street, you might have an uphill climb convincing me that a film about a dude who can’t move any muscles below his neck falling for a frequently naked Helen Hunt would not only be worth my while, but actually be a genuine turn-on of a date movie. So I know you’re skeptical when I say it. And since I’m at the exact age Hawkes is supposed to be onscreen, I should add the caveat that if you’re substantially younger, it might just be one long “Bleccch! Old people!” moment. But if you have an open mind, it shouldn’t be.
I’m not even talking drastically open mind here. I know what you fear but may not admit: yes, you applaud when handicapped people triumph, but you don’t necessarily want to see movies all about how tear-jerkingly inspirational the process is, and you may even have laughed aloud when Sean Penn threw a tantrum in I Am Sam with that lispy “mentally challenged” voice he was doing in hopes of baiting Oscar. Well, that’s a fear that should be allayed when you find out that writer-director Ben Lewin has polio, and as such is not likely to sentimentalize it in any condescending way (in fact, he’s hired several disabled actors primarily to talk dirty about their own feats of intimacy, and it’s totally funny and sweet and not remotely uncomfortable unless you’re easily embarrassed). But beyond that, this movie is primarily comedic – there are one or two sad moments, only earned because of the goodwill that the story’s humor has engendered in us up to that point.
Hawkes plays Mark O’Brien, a journalist and poet stuck in an iron lung, who can last for only a couple of hours outside of it, and who has total feeling below the neck but the inability to move anything there, due to polio. He does, however, have that one body part that still moves of its own accord, often firing off during body washes and exasperating the women who take care of him. He also has the tendency to fall in love with his helpers when they’re nice, sometimes with bad results – but after a few false starts he ends up with Vera (Moon Bloodgood), a beauty who rather gratuitously fits into Hollywood “pretty ugly girl” cliche – yes, she has a ponytail and glasses. Since this is technically a period film, though they never say it, it works; Vera would totally be considered a hottie on today’s hipster scene, but in the Reagan era, she fits the dowdy stereotype.
When Mark is asked to investigate a story angle on sex and the disabled, he learns about the concept of professional surrogates – therapists who deal with the sexually disabled in a set series of sessions that culminates in actual intercourse. He likes the idea for himself, wanting to lose his virginity before he faces an inevitably early death, but there’s a hitch that may be almost as significant as his inability to move – he’s Catholic, and unmarried.
Let’s just say this on that topic: would that all Catholic, unmarried men looking to get laid had a priest as understanding as William H. Macy – from their point of view, at least. For a man expected to uphold celibacy, he’s a tad, well, Shameless. As is his hair.
The surrogate in question is Cheryl (Helen Hunt), whose body is as movie-star skinny as it ever was (not saying that’s good or bad; it’s just statement of fact, and ladies, Hawkes is totally ripped), and their sessions together make up the bulk of the story, hence the title. Although it was originally called The Surrogate; perhaps half-remembered fragments of a similarly named Bruce Willis sci-fi movie prompted that change.
Now, if you’re like most people, your own first time was probably awkward as all hell. If not, maybe what follows won’t make sense. But imagine your first time were with a professional – not just a hooker wanting your money and a quick finish, but a pro whose job were to cater to your emotional needs as well. Total fantasy material, really. And while Mark O’Brien was a real guy in this actual situation, the iron lung works as metaphor too – take it from this writer, who only found love late in life: when you can’t find it and only want it more, it feels like there’s a literal barrier there, one that only keeps making things worse as you fight against it while trying to ignore what it signifies. You come out of this movie feeling as though the ancient European tradition of having pros take virginity away to prepare you for doing it right with your actual first paramour is a sensible notion. And let it be said that the tenderness she treats him with is a major turn-on (he’s quick with the nervous wisecrack in response, so it never gets too heavy).
We’ve become used to Hawkes playing scary and rough recently, but he handles vulnerability just as well, and will probably garner Oscar talk, especially since he contorted himself so much of the part that his internal organs started to migrate (take that, Daniel Day-Lewis!). Hunt’s performance wouldn’t be out of the norm in France, but yeah, our movies are weird about sex, and that might make the older Academy folk just as leery as some of the public. But we’ll cease with the obligatory awards talk; what does or doesn’t win shouldn’t be a factor in your ticket purchase. The bottom line here is that yes, a movie about a physically disabled man makes for one of the sexiest date nights of the year. Unless you’re allergic to over-20s.