In one memorable scene from The Sessions, Father Brendan (played by William H. Macy) reflects during confession, “It’s amazing how often God is brought into the sex act. I understand that even among nonbelievers, the most common expression of sexual ecstasy is ‘Oh God.’” He laughs and then sheepishly looks at the large cross behind him.
Is God part of human sexuality? Can God be present during sex? Normally in Hollywood, the answer would be no. Too often, sex on movie screens comes fast and easy, without consequences or a lot of emotional turmoil. If you were to look at most of our Hollywood screens from a distant planet, you’d think that women always took off their tops, moaned in ecstasy, and hailed from a land of creatures with no body fat. You’d think men never suffered a lack of confidence, and you might wonder why—in contrast to the woman-folk—their lower body parts remained mysteriously hidden from the camera’s lens. You might never suspect that a person’s spirituality could actually nourish his or her sex-life, or the other way around.
Writer/Director Ben Lewin’s The Sessions offers a much different side to sex and intimacy. Instead of sex being fast, reckless, and without spiritual reflection, he depicts scene after scene where two characters—one disabled, one hired as a sex surrogate—discuss the logistics and emotions that surround the act of lovemaking.
It’s an unusual premise, and that’s why The Sessions caught my eye last fall when I perused the movie listings. The movie starts with some background filmography on the real-life subject, Mark O’Brien (played by John Hawkes, of Winter’s Bone, Lincoln, and Martha Marcy May Marlene), who, we discover, is paralyzed from the neck down as a result of childhood polio. Before his death at age 49, he lives much of his life inside of an iron lung, a large machine that enables him to breathe. For only a few hours a day, he is able to get outdoors with the help of a breathing tube and a home health aide. Despite his severe disability, however, Mark O’Brien earns a bachelor’s degree and later, becomes a journalist and poet. To write articles, he wraps his mouth around a long stick and pokes the keys of a nearby typewriter.
And some of us thought we had a hard life.
O’Brien’s other success, of course, is losing his virginity at age 38 to a professional sex surrogate, Cheryl Cohen Greene. But not before getting permission from Father Brendan, his priest. He only hears about sexual surrogacy because of an article he’s working on, and he is on a quest to reconcile the doctrines of his Catholic faith with his human desire. After doing his research, he asks for Father Brendan’s blessing: “Is it possible for me to know a woman in the biblical sense?” It’s not easy for Father Brendan to answer. He looks at Jesus on the cross behind him, sighs a lot, but finally says, “In my heart, I feel like He’ll give you a free pass on this one. Go for it.”
Helen Hunt plays Greene, a mother and wife who enjoys helping disabled clients through this alternate kind of therapy. Shameless about sex, she still happens to be in the midst of a spiritual struggle of her own; she has promised her husband she will convert to Judaism, but she doesn’t know that she believes. O’Brien is the most severely disabled client she’s ever dealt with, and she has some concerns about how well he’ll be able to function during the sexual act.
The scenes of O’Brien’s “sessions” with sex surrogate Cohen are funny, intimate, and as honest about sex as movies get. Cohen is O’Brien’s personal sex educator, but she is also a kind and gentle initiator, answering questions as well as helping him explore his past, his negative feelings toward himself, and his desire. For a man stricken with polio and confined to a stretcher for most of his life, Cohen’s special kind of therapy helps O’Brien feel confident and romantically loved, emotions he never felt he deserved. The most important message of the movie is that each of us has the capacity to act according to what we know in our hearts is right, to pursue our truth, no matter what path it may lead us on.
In our culture, sex is either shameful, hidden, or everywhere, plastered on billboards and on the sides of buses, paired alongside gunfire, prestige, and crass financial transactions. The Sessions—even though its characters are each in a unique situation, and one is a client of the other—offers the healthy view that sexuality is a normal, enjoyable, and very important part of one’s life. Not only that, but the questions of faith, God, and religion that arise also tie sex closely to one’s spirituality. By the end of the movie, it is clear that Cohen is emotionally revitalized, perhaps even spiritually awakened, by O’Brien’s unabashed joy, his humor, and his deeply held faith, even as he suffers daily the effects of his illness.
I also can’t help but note that in a culture where too often, men’s artistic vision and desires are elevated above women’s, it’s nice to see a movie that gives equally delicate treatment to both its male and female lead characters. Cohen’s journey is just as important in The Sessions as O’Brien’s—both become teachers for the other. Not only that, but in highlighting a segment of the population that is not normally recognized as sexual—the disabled—the movie enlightens us to how instrumental a healthy sex life is for anyone, all at the same time as it helps us see past the negative boundaries of what our culture and faith traditions have previously taught us.
Despite its unusual subject matter, I have to say that The Sessions is one of most wholesome (and best) films I’ve seen in a long time.