Movie Review: The Sessions

The Sessions (2012)
Directed by Ben Lewin
Cast: Helen Hunt, John Hawkes, William Macy

Movie Poster from Fox Searchlight

Movie Poster from Fox Searchlight

On September 9th, 2012, I (Stephen Duclos) was able to preview The Sessions at the Toronto International Film Festival. Both the Director, Ben Lewin, and the cast were available after the film for questions and answers. This review includes and makes reference to their commentary.

Based on the life and writings of Mark O’Brien, a writer and poet, Director Ben Lewin has crafted a story of love and sex, disability and possibility. At once a comedy and a heartbreaking portrayal, this film catapults sex therapy and sexual surrogacy out of the shadows. John Hawkes, playing Mr. O’Brien, is filmed exclusively from the waist up. Even when sipping mouthfuls of air (when not confined to his iron lung), he figures out a way of delivering complexity with his voice and eyes alone. And his comic timing keeps the audience surprised, over and over again. Helen Hunt, as his sexual surrogate, Cheryl, operates without clothes with such comfort that the social constructions around sexuality and disability disappear. What is left is entirely normal, lacking only logistical technique and education. In a more comic role, William Macy, as a Catholic priest and Mark’s religious advisor, struggles with the teachings of his church amidst the sexual yearnings of this unique parishioner.

Although much will be made of the sexual aspects of this film, and the nudity of Ms. Hunt, its power rests on the humanity of Mr. O’Brien, who has a legendary status in the disability community, and is beautifully played by John Hawkes, who won an Oscar for his work in Winter’s Bone (2010). The opening scenes of the movie include Mr. O’Brien’s graduation from the University of California at Berkeley on a gurney, and his attempts at powering the gurney backwards as a kind of wheelchair with mirrors, an experiment that did not work. A documentary film has previously been made of Mr. O’Brien’s life, Breathing Lessons (1997), which won an academy award. Mr. O’Brien happened to live in Berkeley during a critical time in the disability rights movement. The first center for independent living in the United States was established here through the efforts of Judy Heumann and her associates around 1972. (The second center was established a year later in a section of a dormitory at Boston University by a group that included this writer.) Living in Berkeley amidst disability rights activists was a perfect place for Mr. O’Brien, whose journalistic missives are included in his book, How I Became a Human Being (2003). A flavor of this is presented in this film, although Mr. Lewin has focused less on the political than on the personal.

Mr. Lewin makes it clear that he based this film on Mr. O’Brien’s article, “The Sex Surrogate”. He includes Mr. O’Brien’s own words and dialogue from this piece, which are wry and darkly comic. Mr. Lewin chose not to incorporate Mr. O’Brien’s attraction to men, or to introduce his unrequited love for certain men, or his internal struggles with orientation, which are part of his writing. This is a quibble in a film that is trying to get at a more universal theme, that is, the need for reciprocal human touch and intimacy. This need is as critically important for a man with a disability as it is for his sexual surrogate, and the needs of these two collide from opposite ends of the touch spectrum in a way that alters both.

Although Mr. Lewin and Ms. Hunt both describe this film as a comedy, there is a pathos at work that avoids the sentimental while including the difficulties in Mr. O’Brien’s life. For example, there is a scene in the film where the power goes out in his neighborhood, and the pump for the iron lung stops working. This is a reminder that, in Mr. O’Brien’s position, even breathing cannot be assumed. For most of the film, John Hawkes renders this life in a comical tone; the audience begins to anticipate the quip that will arise from a situation. Certainly around sexuality, aspects of premature ejaculation and first intercourse are easy comic foils And in these moves toward the comic, the acting is considerably different from Daniel Day Lewis’ performance in My Left Foot, with which this film will inevitably be compared.

As the film develops, however, the complexity of the relationship between Mr. O’Brien and his sexual surrogate becomes increasingly poignant in an unexpected way that left me, and at least the Toronto audience around me, sobbing. Helen Hunt manages to convey every good therapist’s experience with that one person that transcends the clinical nature of the work. The facade of boundaries, transference, and protocol drop to reveal two humans in the midst of a profound relationship. And here the necessary mutual decision to part ways is presented viscerally. The crux of the movie is contained in Ms. Hunt’s breakdown. And then this comedy transforms into something else, a gloss on the vagaries of human life, a commentary on touch, intimacy, sexuality and relationship. A new paradigm emerges on the ineluctable universality of sexuality in all its relationships.

Once this film engages a larger audience, the dialogue around sexuality, and sexuality and disability, is likely to shift. And the profession of sex therapist will become more a part of the dominant cultural narrative. It was surrogacy that destroyed Masters and Johnson, and it is now a film about surrogacy that may allow sexual science to enter the public frame as a widely accepted discipline.