Mark O’Brien is a poet and a journalist who is mostly confined to an iron lung. He has full sensation, but his muscles don't work. He lives a lot of his life inside his head out of necessity, but he wants to experience all of life. He is a devout Catholic, and at the beginning of the movie The Sessions, he is meeting his new priest.
The movie's tenor is soon demonstrated by Mark’s words to the priest, who has become his friend: "My penis speaks to me, Father." In that statement is the frank sexual nature of the movie, Mark's quiet humor and the yearning of a sincere believer whose desires and fantasies have driven him to approach his priest on the subject.
It also illustrates the open and trusting relationship between Mark and his priest. The priest never shows signs of seeing Mark as anything less than a parishioner who needs his love and support. When Mark brings up his idea of seeing a sex surrogate, the priest gives him the OK.
Why should Mark (played by John Hawkes) get a pass on extramarital sex, when that is not a freedom allowed the single or widowed person, or indeed even the priest (William H. Macy)? I am not going to draw that line. But the film does an excellent job of showing that while people care about Mark, while he has intimacy with some, the hunger for physical connection is still intense.
His caregivers care for him deeply. They also do a very nurse-like job in handling his functions. His priest, with whom he has a close and warm relationship, does not have a natural impulse to hug Mark just because he is lying down and it is awkward. So an unexpected affectionate gesture from a surrogate named Cheryl (Helen Hunt) is an earthshaking event for him.
Should you see it? I don't know. I watched with a good friend. I wouldn't have enjoyed seeing it with my husband, which speaks solely to my own insecurities. This is a movie in which nudity and sexual candor are necessary, and I'm not someone who usually feels that way. The whole story is Mark's coming to terms with the physical nature of sex and his desire, and the reality of another person naked next to him, not playing a role in his head. He is both desirous and terrified, and his progress is very awkward, and you feel that all right along with him. It makes the viewer understand what it would be like to be so vulnerable and yet so human.
But there is a lot of nudity. It's pretty much half the movie. Cheryl tells Mark that a sexual surrogate is a very different thing from a prostitute. Watching the movie, you get it, but she's still paid to have sex with him. That strange ambiguousness exists when you try to define why watching people have sex onscreen in this movie is different than porn. It is, but why?
The difference is the fact that the surrogacy, as well as this movie, is characterized by a need for healing, of being made whole. Prostitution and porn are about gratification. It's not the sex that drives the movie, even as it is what drives the plot. It's Mark's desire to be a whole being, to be connected to someone else, to have that kind of relationship with another. In the end, you will have to make your own discerning decision about your reasons for watching.