Mark O’Brien is a 38-year-old polio survivor who spends most of his time in an iron lung. With the help of his two affable caregivers, Vera and Rod, Mark seems to ameliorate the worst excesses of his affliction with good humor and perseverance. In the hyper-liberal Bay Area bubble in which he lives, Mark is treated with respect and kindness; those who mock or jibe are immediately reprimanded. Justice and tolerance are meted out in such harmony that one wonders if Mark just happened to stumble into Atticus Finch’s utopia.
Well, that is until he makes the crucial mistake of asking a priest about sex. You see, Mark is a 38-year-old virgin and after writing about the sexual experiences of the disabled, he is compelled to give the deed a crack himself. “The Sessions” — based on the true story of journalist, poet and UC Berkeley alumnus Mark O’Brien — follows Mark as he enlists the help of a “sex surrogate,” Cheryl, to explore his sexuality and eventually lose his virginity. For the cutesy-indie-dramedy genre that “The Sessions” aims at, it is an ideal premise. Mark’s quest for companionship and his sisyphean quest to eek every drop of opportunity from his impossibly difficult life is the perfect blend of truthful and uplifting human drama that screenwriters dream about.
Unfortunately, “The Sessions” never manages to fulfill the potential of its premise. Like a wind-up toy, the film takes its audience exactly where they expect it to go. When Cheryl tells Mark she’s not after “repeat business” and that he only has a limited number of sessions with her, the audience knows exactly where Mark and Cheryl’s relationship is headed and idly waits to be taken there. We know his search for sex is an articulation of his need for companionship — it’s no surprise when it is directly (and clumsily) stated. “The Sessions” has a well-mapped path, and once that wind-up toy is pointed in the direction it wants to go, it makes little or no deviation from its set course.
Director Ben Lewin neglects every opportunity to plunge deeper into Mark’s psychology. How can a man so mistreated by life be so religious? What is his breaking point? Apart from a throw-away line about Mark’s need to blame his misery on a higher power and a few brief scenes in which he struggles to make do without a caregiver — these questions are never adequately explored. Unlike 2007’s groundbreaking “The Diving Bell and The Butterfly,” which mined the psychology of a disabled man robbed of both his voice and mobility, “The Sessions” never lets us really come to know Mark.
Film is a medium that peels away the layers of character’s affable and mendacious image by testing them in the most challenging situations. Unfortunately, Mark gets a “free pass” on this as well. When the lights go up, he evaporates into the half-light of the emptying cinema leaving little more than a lingering memory, like that amazing guy you met at a party who never gave you his number.
“The Sessions” gives the audience an idea of the sort of film it wants to be, but it never quite fills the shoes of its ambitions. It comes at the audience with all the promise of Mark’s unsatisfying foreplay and vanishes just as quickly. In living a meaningful, productive and loving life, O’Brien far exceeded the limitations society and his physical affliction had placed on him. It’s a pity this film was unable to do the same.
Thomas Coughlan is the lead film critic. Contact him at [email protected]