Lessons in Love
by Mark Dispenza
Writer-director Ben Lewin has strayed from his roots in network televison (Ally McBeal, Touched by an Angel) to bring audiences a life-affirming story on the subject of sex that mines the depths of purist love.
Originally titled The Surrogate when it debuted to appreciative audiences at Sundance earlier this year, The Sessions is based on an autobiographical article by writer-poet Mark O'Brien about his experience using the services of a sexual surrogate to have sex for the first time. This is a challenge because Mark contracted polio at an early age and has spent his entire adult life dependent on an iron lung for survival. He can only remain outside the device safely for up to three hours. Although Mark can feel sensation all over his body, he is paralyzed from the neck down.
John HawkesMark is played by John Hawkes with all the authenticity we have come to expect from this Oscar-nominated actor. After he finds himself turned on by a young, sexy caregiver, he decides that it's time to overcome that limitation to a normal, fulfilled life. While on assignment to write an article about how persons with disability experience sex, he learns about a sexual surrogate named Cheryl (Helen Hunt), who works with the disabled. Mark decides to take the plunge.
Cheryl informs Mark that her approach is clinical, and to mitigate against too much emotional attachment from her clients, they will be limited to six sessions, hence the title of the film. What Cheryl doesn't see coming is that she is the only one she should be concerned about.
Mark is the type of protagonist who doesn't change much during the course of the story. He changes the people who come into contact with him. Their defenses are down because they see a vulnerable person deserving of their sympathy. They don't expect any real bond to form with this helpless man. In their minds they see themselves as doing a good deed and making the miserable deprivations of this man's life a little easier to bear. But then they find themselves drawn in by Mark's sincerity and emotionally generous nature. At that point it's all over. They are unexpectedly and permanently attached to him.
Helen HuntHunt is in her best form as she portrays a woman who sees herself performing a valuable service, but in a compartmentalized way that keeps her emotions in check. She allows us to see and experience the erosion of those emotional defenses as her sessions with Mark progress.
Mark is a devout Catholic who seeks guidance and counseling from his parish priest for his life decisions and even sexual adventurism, the latter of which puts Father Brendan, played by William H. Macy, in the awkward position of advising Mark in his pursuit of premarital sex. Macy is responsible for many of the film's lighter moments and biggest laughs as he works through Mark's life challenges. Like everyone else who gets close to Mark, Father Brendan himself will be changed by the experience.
William H. Macy and John HawkesIf you find yourself doubting the human capacity for love in these perilous times of political contention and economic uncertainty, get to your local theater as soon as possible to see this wonderful film, and replenish your capacity for faith in humanity.