At the age of 36, San Francisco poet and journalist Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes), who has been confined to an iron lung since childhood polio, decides he wants to lose his virginity before he dies. With the help of his therapist Laura (Blake Lindsley) and his priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy), he contacts Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Helen Hunt), a professional sex surrogate - but otherwise a typical mother with a teenager, a house and a husband (Adam Arkin). An unusual relationship evolves between Cheryl and Mark as she takes him on his journey. (Inspired by a true story.)
Review by Louise Keller:
Sex, religion, poetry and the disabled might be the subject matter, but nothing will prepare you for the emotions that are shared in this unique, poignant and unforgettable film in which it is the sharing of the experience that is the Shangri-La. For vulnerable real-life polio victim Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes), paralysed and locked in an iron lung prison, his active mind and sensitive expression of words in the form of poetry is his only armoury.
Based on O'Brien's article 'On Meeting a Sex Surrogate', Ben Lewin's candid film, peppered with a wry sense of humour, takes a blatantly raw look at the most complex issue known to man - sex, attraction and love - weaving into the mix issues of guilt, anxiety and pleasure and leaving us profoundly moved.
It takes some time for us to fully absorb and understand the implications of seeing 38 year old Mark lying flat on his back, strapped into his iron-lung without which he cannot breathe unaided for more than a two or three hours. Relying on carers to transport him wherever he needs to go, it takes no time at all through Lewin's screenplay for Mark's sense of humour to prevail and become a key ingredient in the proceedings.
When asked to research and write an article whose subject matter is sex and the disabled, Mark's interest turns to his own sexual experiences, after some highly unsatisfying meetings and discussions with people who, like himself, are disabled. Hawkes' depiction is quite brilliant and totally convincing.
In a brave and honest performance, Helen Hunt plays Cheryl, the sex therapist that not only addresses Mark's key issue of losing his virginity but becomes emotionally touched when his next goal involves her own sexual satisfaction from the encounter. Cheryl sheds her clothes easily and unselfconsciously as Mark's anxiety exacerbates.
There are clear rules to the therapy of talking, body awareness exercises, including intercourse, being that there are a maximum of six sessions, after which time, therapist and patient say goodbye. The sex scenes are graphic, allowing us to understand exactly what transpires behind the closed doors. But it is the tenderness that evolves between Cheryl and Mark that forms the heart of the film.
William H. Macy, who plays the empathetic Catholic priest Father Brendan, is Mark's other therapist - it is to the priest that Mark makes his confessions of guilt and describes in detail his sex education progress. The humour of these scenes that take place in church, does not escape us - especially when overheard by a stray, praying stranger.
There are many complex ingredients to this film, such as the scenes that show Cheryl going home from her sex sessions going to bed with her husband Josh (Adam Arkin, excellent), who she describes as being a philosopher in his own head. There is also the relationship that Mark has with three other key women in his life; Moon Bloodgood as Vera his carer is especially good, who waits patiently outside while the sex therapy takes place.
There's a bittersweet melancholy throughout the film and while humour counters its dire circumstances, The Sessions is a poetically profound snapshot of how love and attraction impacts in pure complicated fashion. Often confronting, it is perhaps surprising that it is the absolute baring of the emotions that impacts most.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Imagine the furore if this story had been invented by a writer: a 36 year old man in an iron lung hires a sex surrogate so he can lose his virginity before he dies. Judd Apatow might have dared, with Steve Carrell in the central role. With respect, the mind shudders ...
Inspired by the true story of Mark O'Brien as told in his newspaper article, On Meeting A Sex Surrogate, and set in 1988 San Francisco, the film avoids the traps. The subject matter calls for discretion and taste if it is not to be everything we might fear, and Ben Lewin's ability to find the right balance between warmly human and schmaltzy - or worse, exploitative - is notable. But he doesn't do it alone; both John Hawkes as Mark and Helen Hunt as Cheryl the woman whose job it is to help him achieve his objective deliver astonishing performances.
We should also acknowledge Aussie cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson's lighting and precision work with the cameras.
Frank and often painful, the film tackles the story head on but with restraint; it engages us by its humanity and its rarity, while holding us with its universality. Sexual behaviour and sexual life is something we all understand in some of its many forms - but maybe not this one. (Who knew there was a profession of sex surrogacy?)
The story is simple and is simply told, but of course it is extremely complicated, too. Emotions and the taboo of sex add layers to the intrigue of the specifics of the case. We are engaged by the compelling characters and a man's discovery of sexuality in a short span of time and in a unique way. And we are touched by the relationship that develops between Mark and Cheryl.
William H. Macy is a hippie kind of priest and he's great in all his close ups as the man of the cloth faced with matters of the body. This, too, is a dimension in the story, Mark's abiding faith and loyalty to his Christian church.
Outstanding work from the three women who play significant other roles by Mark's side, Moon Bloodgood as Vera the carer, Annika Marks as a volunteer with whom Mark falls in love and Robin Weigert, his last love. Jennifer Kumyama is memorable as wheelchair bound Carmen, who lets her house be used for some of the sessions.
I am intrigued by Adam Arkin's Josh, Cheryl's husband, who is portrayed as a thoughtful house hubby who doesn't do much except think; he's a philosopher "in his own head" as Cheryl puts it. Arkin inhabits the character and creates interest, but we never get to know him or how he really feels about it all. You might not quite know how you feel about it all, too ...
Email this article
SEX & THE DISABLED MAN
SESSIONS, THE (MA15+)
CAST: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy, Moon Bloodgood, W. Earl Brown, Annika Marks, Blake Lindsley, Adam Arkin, Min Lo, Jennifer Kumiyama, Robin Weigert
PRODUCER: Ben Lewin, Judi Levine, Stephen Nemeth
DIRECTOR: Ben Lewin
SCRIPT: Ben Lewin
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Geoffrey Simpson
EDITOR: Lisa Bromwell
MUSIC: Marco Beltrami
PRODUCTION DESIGN: John Mott
RUNNING TIME: 94 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: 20th Century Fox
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: November 8, 2012