The Sessions is the true story of poet and journalist Mark O’Brien who, at the unlikely age of 38, sets out to lose his virginity – under rather challenging circumstances. Veteran actor, and Alexandria, Minnesota native, John Hawkes plays O’Brien in a powerful performance that transcends the physical limitations of the role.
Having survived a bout of childhood polio, O’Brien spends a significant part of his time in an iron lung for all but a few hours each week. Most would have difficulty imagining that he could lead an ordinary love life -- but not being ordinary did not stop Mark. Ferreting out the humor, optimism and even faith from his tricky situation, Mark is determined to taste all he possibly can of life, including the emotional and physical pleasures that had eluded him. So, he makes the bold decision to stop dreaming of love and hire a pro: a sex surrogate who can give him a chance at experiencing intimacy in his own inimitable way.
The funny, moving and life-changing set of lessons that ensues in these surrogate sessions became the topic of O’Brien’s 1990 article “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate,” which he published in the literary magazine The Sun. The article broke wide open the taboo of talking publicly about sex and disability, but did it in such an honest, witty and warm way that it seemed anyone, no matter who they were, could relate.
One person who related to O’Brien’s story on an especially personal level was filmmaker Ben Lewin. Like O’Brien, Lewin had contracted polio as a child. Like O’Brien, it didn’t keep him from a successful career. When Lewin stumbled upon O’Brien’s sex surrogate article on the internet, he felt it could be the basis of a film. Was it possible to make a dynamic, relatable and even deeply moving film about a man with a significant disability? Taking his cue from O’Brien’s writing, Lewin envisioned something humor-filled and unsentimentally true to life. He saw the script as not just about a guy’s middle-aged quest to end his virginity but about how a man comes to terms with his body, his manhood and the full measure of what makes a life worth living.