Empathy, Lust and Love: ‘The Sessions’

After seeing ‘The Sessions’, I was left wondering about the actual purpose of love in some people’s lives. It often leaves us feeling elated, then broken or nervous to a state of insecurity, then in pieces that need to be picked up fast so that we can survive from day to day. Love doesn’t feed, clothe, or generally care for us. It doesn’t often meet above ego to solve out true issues. Does this emotion simply exist to remind us that our minor faults turn big when we allow the cracks to show outside of our minds? What is the purpose of love if not to teach us things: finding pleasure, losing it, finding new pleasure, letting it go…the spaces between love are just as valuable -if not more so, for many of us- than the loves we fall into, and this biopic about a writer named Mark O’Brian (played by John Hawkes) serves as a reflection on that concept.

In ‘The Sessions’, Mark O’Brian, who suffers the physical consequences of childhood polio, falls in love three times. Each love he finds comes when he takes some kind of control over his unusual life situation. First, he decides to search for a new caretaker and meets a beautiful, young student named Amanda, who he ends up proposing marriage to. She leaves him, most likely out if deep sadness at not being able to love the situation even if she loves him. This moment where he takes action and experiences his would-be lover’s reaction prompts him to realize rejection, as opposed to just imagining it could happen (would, or even should based on his insecurities). He is left confused about why someone who really loves him would then leave him, but he survives and moves forward.

In the second part of his journey, he discovers a thing called sex therapy, through which he finds a specific kind of therapist called a sex surrogate. His sex surrogate, Cheryl, played by Helen Hunt, is matter-of-fact to the point of seeming scientific about their shares sex therapy sessions. He falls into deep respect and then love with Cheryl, who, still matter-of-factly tells him that they will maintain a professional relationship no matter their mutual feelings. He is, once again, alone in his immobile body- though he is no longer a virgin. From this relationship he learned how to break down the barriers he imagined his disability had created between his body and other bodies. With a heavier heart, he went forward.

In the third part of what is actually Mark’s self-love story, just after he ends up in the hospital, he meets Susan, who exists beyond the sphere of his illness. She is not a nurse or a therapist, just a friend. She stays involved with him as his confidante, because she feels to. Mark feels fulfilled, and doesn’t experience the anxiety related with unobtainable lovers. He finds peace, here, but we don’t really get to see what his peace looks like, because this part of the story basically leads to his post-mortem monologue.

It is almost as if the filmmaker decided that the lessons were more important than the peace he gained from surviving them. In story terms, we, the viewers, get a very good picture of Mark’s mind, but don’t get to go deep enough into the emotional bonds he forms with the three women who loved him in 1 hour and 38 minutes.

The story is successful, because it cohesively tells us that a disabled writer found love three times, learned about himself through these close connections, and found fulfillment in the end. Viewers have enough time to share Mark’s mind to care about him. We just don’t have the same close contact with the women who affect him so profoundly in the last 7 or 8 years of his life.

Still, we can come away with ideas about love, taking them further in our minds than what we saw on screen about Mr. O’Brian. We can think about his pain and his confusion, and how those sadnesses were relieved by fate- or perhaps by his own actions? We can consider his strength as a motivation in our own lives, because many people -regardless of their physical abilities- experience the same kinds of struggles that we see Mark tough-out on screen. Whatever you walk out of the theater thinking, keep in mind that Mark’s story is one of self-acceptance above all else.

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