Sex surrogates in pop culture surfaced in mainstream media via legal dramedy, Boston Legal five years ago. Philandering attorney Alan Shore hired a surrogate for treatment in sexual anxiety. Aside from the fact that taboos sell (just about anything); that minor story arc contained more intellectual wit, cultural and legal references than any other show at the time. Fast forward to 2012, this controversial and unregulated profession enters the limelight once again.
Possibly inspired by 1996 documentary short Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien, The Sessions is an independent drama written and directed by Ben Lewin. It is based on posthumous activist and poet; Mark O’Brien, and chronicles his friendship with sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen-Greene.
Story begins curiously at night with 38 year old Mark (John Hawkes), sound asleep in an iron lung (negative pressure ventilator)—the machine has kept him alive since a bad brush with polio when he was six. Apart from breathing problems; this cruel disease also left him paralyzed and denied of basic mobility. Yet Mark is anything but defeated, he copes with hired help who support a daily routine of journalistic work and visits to the neighborhood church. In the sense of psychological well-being, we learn that Mark has acquired self-depreciating humor and a gift for poetry. But beneath that veneer of playful intellect, there is a vulnerable and sensitive soul lingering.
As it turns out, Mark is two years shy of being a 40-year old virgin and “his penis speaks to him”. He is enamored by the women drifting in and out of his life, but disability hinders sexual confidence. Lack of experience further perpetuates a vicious cycle of loneliness. Driven by his yearning for sexual and emotional intimacy, Mark consults Father Brenden (William H. Macy) on the repercussions of hiring a sex surrogate—”in the biblical sense”.
The rest of this film depicts his journey towards life satisfaction beginning with Cheryl (Helen Hunt); and examines the irony of self-preservation through humorous conversations between Mark and Father Brenden. Helen Hunt gives a brave and dignified performance as Cheryl; breadwinner of her family, resolute in maintaining professional boundaries, concerned about Mark’s growing affections for her, entangled by familial-emotional-ethical strings.
I find that The Sessions capitalizes on stock sentimentalism; and sensationalistic dialogue, at times running the risk of trivializing important questions raised by Mark O’Brien’s efforts as an activist for the disabled. The result is elegant entertainment with very fine acting by both leads, but borders on too much implicit thematic tricks to be taken seriously.