The National Catholic Review

Just posted to our site:

Mark O’Brien contracted polio at the age of 6 and was confined to an iron lung for most of his life. Despite this, he managed to study at U.C.-Berkeley, navigate campus in an electric gurney and become a working journalist. Mark was also a Catholic and a man who longed for love as much as he feared it. Before his death in 1999 at the age of 49, he lived a fascinating, complicated life, which was depicted, in part, in the 1996 documentary “Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien,” which later won an Academy Award. Now, the narrative film “The Sessions” attempts to tell his story once more. This time around, the focus is mainly on the complications surrounding Mark’s sex life, or lack thereof.

Based largely on a highly personal, detailed and at times graphic essay titled “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate,” which was published in The Sun, among other places, the film describes the then 36-year-old Mark’s (a moving and convincing John Hawkes) efforts to overcome his anxiety regarding any sort of intimacy through sessions with a sex surrogate, Cheryl (a very fit Helen Hunt). The theory behind the therapy is that, through a series of six to eight sessions, Mark and the surrogate will use “body awareness exercises” and, eventually, sex, as a way to deal with Mark’s anxiety, as well as his low self esteem and lack of self worth.

In the film, as he did in real life, prior to the sessions Mark seeks advice from Father Brendan (William H. Macy sporting a floppy surfer hairstyle), a Catholic priest, “as a friend.” After gazing at a statue of Jesus for approximately three seconds (as if this is how all priests make decisions), Father Brendan says, “In my heart I feel like He’ll give you a free pass on this one. Go for it.” (The real-life priest told him: “Jesus was never big on rules.”)

Often, the Father Brendan character appears to be at a loss. “All I have are vague ideas of life and death that we priests are equipped with,” he tells Mark. His character constantly spouts platitudes that make him sound like his seminary training took place in the self-help section of Barnes & Noble. Was Father Brendan’s answer a compassionate, pastoral response or a condescending misguided one? The film never digs deep enough into Mark’s thoughts or Father Brendan’s theology to explore this question in full. If Father Brendan is the epitome of chill—exemplified by his flowing hair and willingness to drink beer—the church he works for is depicted as the opposite.

In “The Sessions” the church is a place that offers mainly blame, guilt and shame. God is largely a scapegoat. The film depicts Mark’s religion at best as a kind of salve to soothe anxiety, and at worse a force of crushing guilt that renders him incapable of finding joy in intimacy. The church’s view of sex is more nuanced than the film gives it credit for; instead “The Sessions” opts for several glib, oversimplified interpretations.

Read the full review here.

Tim Reidy