Review of ‘The Sessions’

So I finally managed to watch The Sessions last night, thanks to iTunes, and thought I’d give you all my review.  Sorry it has taken so long to do this, but I was unable to see the film in a cinema in Japan, I’m sure it was or shall be released, but unless it is big like The Hobbit or The Great Gatsby – it can take forever to come out here.

 Make no mistake, Ben Lewin’s film, which stars John Hawkes as Mark O’Brien and Helen Hunt as Cheryl  Cohen – later Cohen-Greene, as the patient and sex therapist of the titular ‘Sessions’ is a seriously good film.  It is very moving and humorous, treating its subject in a mature manner. Everybody in film gives a wonderful performance, from the leads through to William H Macy as Father Brendan, a part that could so easily have been played as comic relief, actually quite touchingly observed.  Also look out for Adam Arkin as Josh, Cheryl’s husband, and Annika Marks as Amanda.

I do have a couple of comments, which I shall list here.  I do agree with Mark Kermode, that the lack of male nudity is an issue.  And yes, in literature and in film there is a long tradition of film where a man tries to lose his virginity, in fiction, D.H. Lawrence aside, it seems very much to be a male fantasy,  I just do think the film missed an opportunity there to be an exception to that trope.

My other quibble, is that I wasn’t sure about the ending.  Yes, the very real Mark O’Brien met Susan Fernbach.  However in the film, the compression of time gives the impression he met one night not long after the sessions with Cheryl.  Mark O’Brien  saw Cheryl in 1985 and met Susan some five years before he died. 

Of course, it OK to end on an upbeat tone, but I just worry that it distracts from the other message  in Mark O’Brien’s The Sun Magazine article, the sense of isolation and failure he felt after the sessions with Cheryl  ended.  He wrote:

I began this essay in 1986, then set it aside until last year. In re-reading what I originally wrote, and my old journal entries from the time, I’ve been struck by how optimistic I was, imagining that my experience with Cheryl had changed my life.


But my life hasn’t changed. I continue to be isolated, partly because of my polio, which forces me to spend five or six days a week in an iron lung, and partly because of my personality. I am low-key, withdrawn, and cerebral.

My personality, it may be said, is a result of my disability, because of which I have spent most of my life apart from people my own age. Whatever the cause, my isolation continues, along with the consequent celibacy. Occasional visitors sit on the futon, but I’ve never lain on it.

I wonder whether seeing Cheryl was worth it, not in terms of the money but in hopes raised and never fulfilled. I blame neither Cheryl nor myself for this feeling of letdown. Our culture values youth, health, and good looks, along with instant solutions. If I had received intensive psychotherapy from the time I got polio to the present, would I have needed to see a sex surrogate? Would I have resisted accepting the cultural standards of beauty and physical perfection? Would I have fallen into the more familiar pattern of flirting, dating, and making out which seems so common among people who have been disabled during or after adolescence? 

One thing I did learn was that intercourse is not an expression of male aggression, but a gentle, mutually playful experience. But has that knowledge come too late?

Where do I go from here? People have suggested several steps I could take. I could hire prostitutes, advertise in the personals, or sign up for a dating service. None of these appeal to me. Hiring a prostitute implies that I cannot be loved body and soul, just body or soul. I would be treated as a body in need of some impersonal, professional service — which is what I’ve always gotten, though in a different form, from nurses and attendants. Sex for the sake of sex alone has little appeal to me because it seems like a ceremony whose meaning has been forgotten.

Much of this is put into the mouth of Mark O’Brien in the film, so it is there, but its followed quickly by showing the beginning of his relationship with Susan, and that detracts a little from O’Brien says above.  Whilst his relationship with Susan is important, if like me your interested in Mark O’Brien. (do read this Huffington Post article about Mark O’Brien and Susan Fernbach), the film isn’t called ‘The Life of Mark O’Brien’, it’s not a biopic – that is a film I would pay to see, but this isn’t it,  it’s called The Sessions.  Whilst introducing Susan does provide a nice coda with Mark O’Brien’s funeral, and a reading of his poem ‘Love Poem for No One in Particular’, which I shall reprint here:

Let me touch you with my words
For my hands lie limp as empty gloves
Let my words stroke your hair
Slide down your backand tickle your belly
Ignore my wishes and stubbornly refuse to carry out my quietest desires
Let my words enter your mind bearing torches

admit them willingly into your being
so they may caress you gently

As I said, very moving, and I’ll definitely watch it again (also think it would make a great stage play).  Maybe I can be convinced about the ending, but until I am, 4/5.  Definitely, everyone should see this film.