Mark O’Brien’s life is one of those moving life stories we encounter from time to time. After he contacted polio when he was 6, he spent most of his life as a paralyzed man depending on iron wrong, but he never gave up, and he eventually attended UC Berkeley while moved around the campus by his gurney. After his graduation, he had been active as a poet and a journalist before his death in 1999, and his life was the subject of an Oscar-winning short documentary film “Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien”(1996).
I know, it sounds like ‘the disability of the week’ TV movie, but, based on one of the articles written by O’Brien, Ben Lewin’s “The Sessions” is anything but. While sensitively observing many difficulties in the daily life of its hero, it treats his private human wish with warm humor and deep understanding, and I was touched by how it tactfully and humanely handles its carnal subject which has been mainly used for cheap laughs nowadays.
To O’Brien, who is movingly played by John Hawkes in the movie, the life is not so easy even though he has been accustomed to his disability for many years. He has to spend many hours in the iron lung at his home, and he always needs the help from his assistants every day. He can go out for fresh air while still being on his gurney pushed by his assistant, but he has to take a respirator with him just in case. Though his paralyzed body is weak and skinny, at least he can control his head, and we see him using ‘mouth stick’ for calling someone or typing his writing.
On one day, while doing some research for his article, he learns about sex surrogate. After finding that the disabled can have a sex through the advice and help from sex surrogate, O’Brien becomes very interested in experiencing sex. While his sex organ can be erected, he is still a virgin, and he knows that he will not live long, so, after discussing with Father Brendan(William H. Macy) on whether his act can be approved in his religious view, he immediately starts his adventure into an undiscovered territory.
He finds and hires a sex surrogate, and the movie observes their sessions with the considerable degrees of sensitivity and tact. Cheryl(Helen Hunt) approaches to her latest work just like any experienced professional therapist would do; she makes it clear to him that there will be only six sessions and no more, and she will frankly teach him about sex step by step while being naked with him on the bed. Through its honest and sensible approach, the movie treats their nudity scenes with respect; they are naked on their bed not for fun but for their serious business. Her nudity is only for professional reason, and the intercourse between them is just another step of their process.
None the less, there are really humorous moments during this process, and they never feel cheap or vulgar because they are drawn from the understandable human behaviors and reactions we can identify with. Although he started lesson with clumsiness and awkwardness, it turns out that O’Brien’s genitalia, which has never been utilized for its main purpose besides urination before, is more sensitive than he thought, and their progress is more rapid than they expected – and something begins to grow between them during their sessions even though they are strictly a client and his therapist.
One of the major surprises during the recent announcement of 2013 Oscar nominees was that John Hawkes was not nominated for his heartfelt performance in this film. While depending mostly on his head in the challenging performance, Hawkes holds the emotional center of the movie as a likable man who loves life and is determined to directly learn about a valuable experience he thought he would never have in his life. The director Ben Lewin’s screenplay also pays considerable attention to O’Brien’s nurse, and the small scenes between Hawkes and the actors who play them(Moon Bloodgood, Earl W. Brown, and Annika Mark) are warm and tender.
On the opposite, Helen Hunt, in her best role since her Oscar-winning turn in “As Good As It Gets”(1997), gives a very good performance which deservedly received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. As going through the sessions with him, Cheryl comes to like him, and, even though her professionalism recognizes that her heart is going into that tricky area in her profession, she cannot help but be affected by the romance unintentionally ignited by her inside her client’s heart. I also like the way how the movie sees her husband(Adam Arkin) as someone more than a trivial character; he understands her work, but he does not welcome her business matter invading into their own private life.
William H. Macy, who has been always a dependable actor, also brings another layer of sunny humanity to the story as Father Brendan. Father Brendan is always ready to listen to one of his devoted believers in front of the altar in his church, and, during one of their conversations at the church, both clearly perceives one problem in O’Brien’s pursue for sex; even though his wish is sincere, extramarital copulation is technically a sin in their Catholic view. In the end, as a kind and open-minded priest who knows O’Brien well, Father Brendan gives him his practical blessing: “I know in my heart that God will give you a free pass on this one. Go for it.”
“The Sessions” is a special movie which sincerely deals sex with real feelings. It could have been silly and blatant, but it is instead both intimate and funny in its warm, delicate storytelling. It reminded me of how much sex has been handled in crude and juvenile ways in many movies – and that’s why I find this movie more special as it grows on me.
Now I remember what great film music composer Alex North said at the 1987 Oscar ceremony after receiving the honorary award: “I would like to make a humble plea to all of us involved in the movies. That is to encourage and convey hope, humor, compassion, adventure, and love, as opposed to despair, synthetic theatrics, and blatant bloody violence. And sex, sex, sex, by all means…. indeed, but with a bit of mystery, a touch of charm and elegance, and lots of imagination.” He would definitely love this movie.