There are usually good reasons to have reservations about a movie that purports to extract a feel-good message from suffering. Those reservations aren't entirely erased by The Sessions, a Sundance-winner about a severely disabled real-life writer, Mark O'Brien, and his relationship with a sex surrogate, Cheryl – though the movie's generosity and humour are welcome, even if the story seems forcibly chipper.
John Hawkes (Winter's Bone) stars as O'Brien, who died in 1999 at the age of 49, immobilized from the neck down by childhood polio. Hawkes uses voice-over, made slightly reedy from his supine position, to describe his struggles with love, God and discrimination against people with disabilities. Helen Hunt stars as the earnest and kind sex professional Cheryl, with William H. Macy as O'Brien's hipster priest and confessor. The gently humorous script is bolstered by liberal use of O'Brien's own journalism and poetry in the voice-over and dialogue. Both Hawkes and Hunt are getting Oscar talk for their performances, which are likeable and game; for most of the film, Hawkes has only his face to work with; Hunt has her whole body, though often without clothes.
For all that The Sessions does well, it offers some telling deviations from the real story. O'Brien has already appeared on film, in Jessica Yu's Oscar-winning 1996 short documentary, Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O'Brien, which you can watch for free online. You can also read O'Brien's journalism, including his essay On Seeing a Sex Surrogate, which recounts how, in his late 30s, he hired a woman named Cheryl so he could deal with his inhibitions about sex. O'Brien's struggles against self-loathing, loneliness, boredom and religious doubt didn't end with his therapeutic roll in the hay. Though he did fall in love with attendants both male and female, his surrogate wasn't one of them.
"It wasn't as great as I thought it would be, but being naked in bed with a woman who was being extremely friendly was about the most fun I ever had," he recalls in Yu's film.
In short, for all its Sundance indie status, there's something distinctly Hollywood about The Sessions. The director, Ben Lewin, a director now in his 60s, has done features in Australia and shot episodes of Ally McBeal and Touched by an Angel. He has reshaped O'Brien's story into a romantic comedy that Neil Simon might admire, even giving Cheryl a Jewish-conversion subplot to parallel O'Brien's struggles with his Catholic faith. That scene allows for a guest appearance from Rhea Perlman as the mikveh attendant, who informs her: "This is the body that God crafted for you."
I'd call that pushing things, but most often with The Sessions the blunt comedy outweighs the drift toward sanctimony. As O'Brien himself said (a line used in the film), he has to believe in God; it would be unbearable not to have someone to blame.
On the secular side, there's also a memorable performance from Moon Bloodgood, transformed from Maxim hottie and action star (Terminator Salvation), into a frumpy, compassionate attendant, who's still around when the surrogate has moved on. A small achievement perhaps, but when's the last time you saw health-care workers, those unheralded providers of physical and emotional comfort, getting their props?