Paralyzed and confined to an iron lung since childhood, poet-journalist Mark O’Brien (Hawkes) has overcome adversity time and time again. But now, at age 38, he faces his toughest challenge yet: losing his virginity. With the help of a beautiful therapist (Hunt), a sympathetic priest (Macy), and his own unbridled sense of optimism and humor, Mark embarks on an extraordinary personal journey to discover the wondrous pleasures that make life worth living.
The Sessions 8.5
eyelights: Helen Hunt. William H Macy. John Hawkes. the touching and inspirational story. the sex-positive message.
eyesores: Helen Hunt’s eyelift. the slightly confusing non-linear treatment.
Let me touch you with my words
For my hands lie limp as empty gloves
Let my words stroke your hair
Slide down your back
And tickle your belly
For my hands, light and free flying as bricks
Ignore my wishes
And stubbornly refuse to carry out my quietest desires
Let my words enter your mind
Admit them willingly into your being
So they may caress you gently
-Love Poem to No One in Particular, by Mark O’Brien
Mark O’Brien was disabled. Stricken with polio in 1955, he spent most of his life in an iron lung, with only 3 working muscles: in his right foot, in his neck and in his jaw. Unfazed, and with the help of his devoted parents, he managed to get a degree from the University of California, Berkeley. He became a journalist and poet and faced his limitations with a full-bodied sense of humour.
‘The Sessions’ is a true story, and is based on an article he wrote called “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate”, which was published in 1990. It’s about his attempt to lose his virginity, with the able assistance of a sex surrogate.
In it we find Mark, then 38, unable to get around without help, having been forbidden from using a mobile iron lung after having a few accidents. He is saddled with a caregiver that he despises, convinced that she purposely makes his life just miserable enough, but not enough so that there would be proof should he lodge a complaint.
He decides to hire a new caregiver, and falls for her hard, but soon discovers that his dreams of having any romantic relationship may not ever bear fruit. Thinking that he may have a limited life expectancy, he begins to explore the possibility of at least having a sexual intercourse.
But first, as a devout Christian, he must get the approval of the local priest; it would, after all, be out of wedlock.
If this all sounds far too dry or depressing, I need to reassure you right from the onset: ‘The Sessions’ is neither, and anything but. Peppered with intelligent humour and told from a life-affirming perspective, it even avoids the trappings of the usual “inspirational” stories, casting its light on Mark not as a hero, but as a human being first and foremost.
I was particularly taken with the story and, particularly, the way that it was told. I relished each line, and simply loved Mark’s perspective on every moment of his life, even the most mundane. All the elements that could have seemed clichéd or déjà vu (it’s hardly the first film of its kind) was given a slightly different spin – just enough that it made everything feel relatively fresh.
But, most of all, I fell in love with the characters – or the people, really, should the interpretations hold true.
- John Hawkes incarnates Mark O’Brien. I know nothing of Hawkes, nor do I know anything about O’Brien or how someone stricken as he was would be like, but I found Hawkes wholly convincing. What is especially notable is that he performs the whole film with only his head, and yet manages to make Mark more expressive than some actors can with their whole bodies. With his facial expressions and his voice alone, he actually makes us see, feel and understand a complete human being. He channeled O’Brien’s sense of humour, his confidence, his hopes, his dreams, his insecurities, his disappointments, made him three-dimensional and almost larger than life. We have no doubt that Mark is someone special and captivating.
- Helen Hunt gives life to Cheryl Cohen-Greene, Mark’s sex surrogate. I’ve always liked Hunt. There’s an awareness there that most Hollywood actresses simply don’t have and can’t emulate. She’s smart without being booky, funny without being quirky, and beautiful without being artificial (or, at least she was, until this unfortunate eye-lift). Anyway, she gives Cheryl such self-assuredness, empathy and patience that you can’t help but love the character. It’s funny, because the way she is with Mark is slightly different from the way she is at home; she’s a professional and she leaves no doubt to her ability and her trustworthiness. Hunt is brilliant here. There is no hesitation in her performance and she takes on every moment fully. I also have to commend her for baring herself not just emotionally, but also physically; at nearly 50, not everyone would be so bold.
- William H. Macy is wonderful as Father Brendan. Macy tends to play eccentrics a lot and very well – in fact, it’s probably what he’s best at. His father Brendan’s only real quirk is a physical one; with his long hair, one gets the sense that he’s slightly out of place, a youthful maverick in a context that is usually reserved for older, more conservative types. I think that it informs his character a little bit and explains why he’s as receptive to the ideas that Mark brings to him; he is able to listen to him recount his sessions without balking at it or judging him. Macy makes of Brendan a thoughtful and sincere human being first, and a man of cloth second.
There are a handful of other important characters, including Annika Marks as Vera, the caregiver who is the catalyst for Mark seeking therapy, Moon Bloodgood as Vera, his main caregiver from that point onward, and Adam Arkin, the nighttime caregiver. They’re all important players, but they don’t have nearly the same impact as these other three, filling the screen appropriately, but never overwhelming it, leaving the spotlight for our key three.
My favourite moments are without a doubt Mark’s interactions with Cheryl and his confessions/discussions with Father Brendan.
Cheryl: “Hi Mark O’Brien!”
Mark: “Your money is on the desk over there.”
Cheryl: “Yes it is! Thank you!”
Mark: “I didn’t know whether to pay you now or after.”
Cheryl: “I’m not a prostitute, so you don’t have to pay me up front.”
Mark: “That was the wrong way to start off.”
Cheryl: “It really was! Shall we start again?”
Cheryl’s introduction is unforgettable, because you really got the woman right the start, understood what she was about and how she was going to shape the course of things to come. In Brendan, I really enjoyed how much he considered what Mark was saying, especially once the therapy started and he had hear about the progress. These were shining moments in the film.
I was also extremely touched by the way that Mark and Cheryl connected, and how Cheryl decided that it would be best to terminate the sessions early because they had achieved what they had planned all along. Knowing that it was because she had gotten emotionally involved this time moved me to tears because I understood what she must have been feeling then. I also loved that the film didn’t play this moment in the sappy fashion that Hollywood tends to do.
Mark O’Brien would eventually find love and spent the final years of his life with his partner, Susan Fernbach, before dying in 1999 at the age of 49. ‘The Sessions’ spends a miniscule amount of time on this period of his life, because the focus really is Mark’s quest for sexual awareness. But what little it devotes to his final moments was affecting and made for a perfect ending.
I was drawn to this motion picture the moment that I saw Helen Hunt grace the trailer, and was further pulled to it mere seconds later when I discovered what it was about. I had no idea that it was based on true story. I simply thought that it was a novel story idea: why wouldn’t the disabled be allowed access to their sexuality, and what kind of people would be able to give themselves to the work this way? Wow.
I was extremely curious to see how this would be approached, and I must say that ‘The Sessions’ delivered well beyond my expectations. I laughed, I cried, I was touched, was moved, and was impressed by the people, the performances, the script, and the score. My only reservation was in the passage of time, in that the film isn’t linear and doesn’t make it clear from the onset.
But, otherwise, ‘The Sessions’ is a superb film. For me it is, thus far, my favourite movie this year. 2013 is hardly over, but I know that ‘The Sessions’ will be near the top when it’s all said and done. How it didn’t get more mention during the award season is beyond me; Helen Hunt got some notice, as did John Hawkes, but the film didn’t get as many wins as it should have given how remarkable it is.
Oh well. To quote the film’s Mark O’Brien: “I believe in a God with a sense of humor. I would find it absolutely intolerable not to be to able blame someone for all this.”
Post scriptum: To find out more about Mark O’Brien, please read: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/harriet-cabelly/the-sessions-mark-obrien_b_2393989.html
Date of viewing: August 21, 2013