AT ARTS FUSE
The Sessions. Directed by Ben Lewin. At various cinemas throughout New England.
By Tim Jackson.
Jhn Hawkes plays Mark O’Brien, a man who spends most of his life in an iron lung after suffering from polio, in THE SESSIONS.
Films about characters with mental handicaps are a genre of their own. From Charley in 1968 to Rain Man, Awakenings, and I Am Sam, these films are irresistible to actors who hanker after a powerful acting challenge. Movies about characters with severe physical handicaps are less common. They range from the horrific and exploitative 1932 Todd Browning film Freaks to the inspiring tour de force of Daniel Day Lewis in Jim Sheridan’s 1989 My Left Foot and the visually astonishing and sensuous Julian Schnabel 2007 adaptation of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.
The Sessions, directed by 66-year-old Australian filmmaker and polio survivor Ben Lewin, moves beyond using physical handicap for the sake of bravura performance and visual extravaganza. The film quietly and lovingly engages humor, philosophy, sexuality, and spirituality to create a poetic meditation on the nature of physical love and emotional connection.
The film is based on autobiographical writings by Mark O’Brien, a Berkeley poet, writer, humorist, and paraplegic polio victim who died in 1999 at the age of 49. At one point, he tried to lose his virginity by hiring a sex surrogate. Lewin considered using a handicapped actor for the role but chose John Hawkes who, even in his supporting roles, never fails to create powerful flesh and blood characters. His portrayal of O’Brien has none of the actor’s usual applications of workingman roughness. Here he creates a focused, gentle, intellectually intense, deeply religious character with a gift for poetry and a laugh-out-loud sense of humor about both his own condition and the condition of the world around him.
He is an enormously sympathetic character, despite the fact that the actor can use only his face and voice to express himself. Hawkes studied the writings of his subject intensely. If you have seen him in Winter’s Bone, Martha Macy May Marlene, Higher Ground, or Deadwood, you will appreciate the subtle and brilliant ways he alters his voice, modulating his pitch, using the tone of his voice to communicate wonder, pain, humor, frustration, embarrassment, and bravery. It is easily one of the year’s best performances.
Mark O’Brien himself was an attractive man, though physically half the size of actor Hawkes. We quickly forget the physical discrepancy and become captivated by the figure’s wit and winning personality. According to the documentary Breathing Lessons (available on-line at Snag Films), O’Brien was an editor for the Pacific News Service; published essays, book reviews, and news stories in the San Francisco Chronicle, the Examiner, National Catholic Reporter; wrote articles about sports, religion, and the culture and politics of being disabled; and was an NPR contributor.
The film opens with his own poem, “Breathing”:
Grasping at straws is easier. You can see the straws
This most excellent canopy, the air, look you
presses down on me at 15 pounds per square inch
a dense heavy blue blowing ocean
supporting the weight of condors
that swim its churning currents
All I get is a thin stream of it
A finger’s width of the rope that ties me to life
As I labor life a stevedore to keep the connection
I inhale it anyway, knowing that it will hurt
I the weary ends of my bag paper lungs
Helen Hunt approaches the role of sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene without fear, though she rejects the idea that the role calls for bravery. On the Today show she admitted, “All right for God’s sake, I’m naked. People keep saying this is a ‘brave’ performance and I keep thinking ‘brave’ means ‘naked;’ I know what brave means . . . My role in this movie is to give people just a glimpse of what it might be like if we dropped all of our strangeness about sexuality.”
Hunt is strong, beautiful, and convincing in what could be a difficult and self-conscious role for an actress who just turned 50. The bedroom scenes are never cloying or pandering; they are filled with great humor and strikingly evoke the physical reality of sexual experience. The character also has a husband and a teenage son, and the film wisely explores the family dynamics with subtly and dignity. Greene, who in real life is now a grandmother and continues to work as a surrogate, is depicted as clinical and professional, tape-recording her notes after each session. Still, Greene had never experienced anyone quite like O’Brien, with his unabashed urge to confess his deep insecurities and reflect on his misshapen body. It would be easy to make snap judgments about Greene’s occupation, but that would be another film. Hunt’s performance explores the clinical, corporeal, emotional, and spiritual sides of sexuality. (“We have some time left,” she says after he prematurely climaxes. “Would you like to talk or suck my nipples?”) The ease and naturalness of this wonderful actress’s performance will sweep you away.
O’Brien was a devout Catholic and consulted a priest. “God must have a great sense of humor. And I am proof of that,” the film’s O’Brien says in a voiceover. In his essay (titled “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate“), the real life figure writes,
It was not an easy decision. What would my parents think? What would God think? I suspected my father and mother would know even before God if I saw a surrogate. The prospect of offending three such omniscient beings made me nervous.
The obvious conflicts for a priest having to advise a parishioner about sex are made laughingly clear in the character of Father Brendan, played by William H. Macy. The lined gravitas of his face, the tussled head of red, Irish hair, his wondering blue eyes, and the ever furrowed and perplexed Macy brow make him the perfect actor for the job. O’Brien asks simple questions that go beyond church matters and reach into the heart of humanity. The exchanges often leave the priest in a quandary. Their scenes together are hilarious but never condescending. “Should I do I this”? O’Brien asks. “Off the record? Go for it,” Father Brendan says. “How should I do it?” asks O’Brien, beginning to delve into technical details. Slightly flustered and obviously inexperienced in such areas, the Father thinks for a moment and replies, “You’re a poet. Be romantic.” He has a wonderful reaction to hearing about O’Brien’s therapy: “Holy Mother of God! What are Body Awareness exercises?”
Beyond the fine casting and deftly modulated performances, the film boasts a beautifully pitched screenplay by writer-director Ben Lewin. The narration immediately bring us into the challenging world of O’Brien by catching the tone, smarts, and enormous wit of O’Brien’s writing. Lewin, in addition to having suffered polio himself, is a producer of comedies. What he has to say on the nature of sex, love, disability, and Catholic faith had me laughing out loud. That freedom to chuckle at what is ordinarily not thought to be amusing opens up the audience to the character and takes us past his disability. The sex scenes are frank but never graphic. The film cuts back and forth from Greene reading her clinical notes into a recorder back at her home office, becoming increasingly touched by the experience, to O’Brien on his gurney in the church, asking his wonderfully human and humble questions of Father Brendan.
The normalization of disability is taken for granted. The gurney on which O’Brien moves about, when he is no longer captive to an iron lung, is wheeled down streets, up ramps, into church, and into restaurants without comment. His assistants push him everywhere, a group of paid nurses whom he first interviews and are not immune to his charm. This wonderfully cast group of actresses are worth mentioning, particularly the staunch and lovely Moon Bloodgood as Vera.
The Sessions is not your standard comedy, though it proffers enormous humor; it is not a “disability film,” though the character is completely paralyzed, and it is not an erotic film, though sex is the subject. Ironically, it may be the best and most honest film on sexuality I’ve seen. It’s a perfect family film for kids of a certain age, even if you don’t all sit together. Kids weaned on Superbad and Judd Apatow comedies may even discover that sex is more than just a gag line or a snicker.