"The Sessions": Is this unlikely sex fable Oscar-bound?

John Hawkes and Helen Hunt are marvelous in a generous fable of sex and disability -- but how truthful is it?

By Andrew O'Hehir

Published October 19, 2012 5:18PM (EDT)

What’s the connection between sex and romantic love, and how well does it work when we try to decouple the two? That question, in dramatic form, goes back at least as far as the invention of romantic comedy during the later Renaissance, and very likely all the way back to the first time two simians did the deed and started thinking about it too hard afterward. Both the strength and the weakness, I would say, of writer-director Ben Lewin’s intimate drama “The Sessions” come from the way it recasts that hoary question in a specific contemporary context.

Previously known as “Six Sessions” and before that as “The Surrogate,” this movie was a breakout hit at Sundance back in January, largely because of the brave and commanding performances of John Hawkes and Helen Hunt. It’s based, as they say, on a true story, though one should always be leery of that. Hawkes plays Mark O’Brien, a poet and journalist who has been severely disabled by childhood polio but decides, at age 36, that he wants to lose his virginity – after a whole lifetime, as he puts it, when people have only touched his body when they had to, in order to bathe or dress him. Hunt plays Cheryl Cohen Green, the professional sex surrogate – yes, that’s different from a prostitute, as she calmly explains -- whose job is to help him accomplish that goal.

Both actors have been talked up as Oscar contenders since then, and I certainly have no objection. But “The Sessions” is a small and delicate film, and despite its unusual premise its best moments are literally moments – almost imperceptible episodes of ordinary generosity, decency and humor that you’d barely notice in daily life. There’s almost certainly an audience for Lewin’s restrained, charming and straightforward approach to issues like sexuality, disability and religious faith, but this movie is best appreciated on its own modest terms, without recourse to perceived bigness and importance, or some future Oscar campaign.

On any number of levels, “The Sessions” feels like quietly rebellious counterprogramming, different in both spirit and substance from most other movies in the marketplace. Its tone is romantic, rueful and even chaste, especially considering the fact that Hunt is seen completely naked on several occasions (I’m pretty sure no body double is used) and there’s considerable explicit talk about the mechanism of putting a penis inside a vagina. Of course, these two need to talk things out more than most couples do – Mark is almost totally paralyzed from the neck down, suffers from persistent pain, and lacks the strength even to breathe for more than a few hours outside his iron lung. Cheryl Cohen Green, Hunt’s character, is a wife and mother who disrobes without a hint of coyness or coquetry, in a simple, serious and entirely professional spirit.

Another unexpected ingredient here is writer-director Lewin, whom many people at Sundance assumed to be an industry newcomer or first-time director. He’s actually 66 years old and, like Mark O’Brien, a polio survivor. Lewin was born in Poland just after World War II and grew up in Australia, and he directed two small-scale comedies in the ‘90s, along with episodes of “Ally McBeal” and “Touched by an Angel.” That background actually explains several things about “The Sessions” that seem off-kilter at first, including its unabashed sentimentality and its relatively friendly portrayal of religion, both in Christian and Jewish form. I’m not saying there’s anything false or dishonest about this; the real O’Brien, who made national news by gaining admission to U.C. Berkeley’s journalism school despite his disability, frequently spoke of how his Roman Catholic faith helped him cope. I don’t know for sure whether Father Brendan, the supportive priest played by William H. Macy in the film, is based on a real person, but it’s more than plausible.

I never knew Mark O’Brien, but since we were both journalists in the San Francisco Bay Area, I knew several people who knew him, and I certainly remember seeing him on the streets of Berkeley, Calif., in his horizontal motorized wheelchair. The real O’Brien was 4-foot-7 and weighed 60 to 70 pounds, and even in Berkeley, which prided itself early on for providing access and services to people with disabilities, his contorted appearance attracted attention. If you want to know more about the real O’Brien, read the wonderful tribute by Lorenzo W. Milam that was published on Salon after his death in 1999. Don’t miss the acerbic and brilliant poem “Lifestyles of the Blind and Paralyzed,” which captures an aspect of O’Brien’s penetrating wit we never see in “The Sessions.”

They’re out there, my public,
dying to ask me what happened to you,
wondering how I pee
and using me as proof
that God is just
and punishes only the wicked.

I guess it falls within the guidelines of poetic license that Lewin has cast Hawkes, a man with a wiry, muscular and entirely normal physique, to play the role. In fact the actor does a wonderful job of conveying physical powerlessness and (according to O’Brien’s friends) capturing the dry, high vocal intonation of a person who can’t use his chest or diaphragm to speak. In fairness, Lewin never claims that he’s telling O’Brien’s story with any kind of literal accuracy – and an acclaimed nonfiction film about the author already exists, Jessica Yu’s Oscar-winning short “Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien.” (You can watch it free -- and legally -- online.)

Many minor details about O’Brien’s life and career and his relationship with Cohen Green have been massaged, and then there’s the elephant in the room: For most viewers, the prospect of watching John Hawkes and Helen Hunt get it on is reasonably attractive, whatever the context. You can’t say the same thing about the prospect of watching a tiny, fragile and misshapen person receive his sexual initiation, however much sympathy you might feel for his situation. I’m not making some huge point here. I’m just saying that “The Sessions” should be taken for what it is, a sweet but minor fictional parable about the strange possibilities of love. You may find it significant, moving and even profound, but it has a limited connection to the real world and the real life of Mark O’Brien.

"The Sessions" is now playing at the Angelika Film Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinema in New York, and the Arclight Hollywood and the Landmark in Los Angeles. It opens Oct. 26 in Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Toronto and Washington, with wide North American release to follow.

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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