Movie review – Sex and the single man
Mark O’Brien’s quest to make love to a woman will move you to tears, writes Gayle Edmunds
Film: The Sessions (Nu Metro)
Director: Ben Lewin
Featuring: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, Moon Bloodgood and William H Macy
Violent perversions of the sex act dominate the pages of our newspapers in the wake of the Anene Booysen case, which became South Africa’s Indian moment as women and some men grapple with the scourge of rape.
The Sessions is a joyful reminder of what the sex act should be. It is a moving story of one man’s personal journey to lose his virginity and make an emotional connection born of physical touch with another human being.
The film is based on the article written by Mark O’Brien, On Seeing a Sex Surrogate, and is in turn funny, poignant but, above all, optimistic as he works towards his goal – to be sexually intimate with a woman at the age of 38.
The challenge for O’Brien is that he is paralysed from the neck down and spends most of his time in an iron lung that breathes for him due to childhood polio.
John Hawkes plays O’Brien and gives an incredibly nuanced performance considering he is horizontal for all of the film and can’t move any part of his body, except his head and, as it turns out, his penis. Hawkes was nominated for a Golden Globe, but his co-star, Helen Hunt, is the one who got the nod from Oscar.
Oscar likes bravery on screen and Hunt exhibits great bravery by Hollywood’s standards. She strips down and gives the audience a full frontal. For an actress who will be 50 this year in an industry that is pathologically terrified of woman older than 25, this is brave. But she deserves her nomination not for nudity, but for her blunt and transparent portrayal of a woman who can’t quite keep her work and her emotions separate as she gets to know her latest client, O’Brien.
Writer and director Ben Lewin, who also contracted polio as a child, says in the film’s production notes that one of the events that changed the way he approached the story was meeting the original sex surrogate, Cheryl Cohen-Greene.
“Her candor and the detail of her recollections helped me redefine a biopic into a relationship movie that I felt much more confident writing,” says Lewin.
This film, which takes place in a relatively tiny universe, is about O’Brien and Cohen-Greene, but one of the other observers is O’Brien’s priest, Father Brendan, played with wit and charm by William H Macy.
This guy is the kind of priest who makes religion seem less anachronistic to an atheist like me. He is compassionate, he is a friend to O’Brien, he is practical and he quite rightly says that God is likely to give O’Brien a pass on the whole “sex before marriage” thing.
One of the film’s funniest lines is O’Brien’s response when someone asks him if he believes in God. “Of course I believe in God. I find the thought of not having someone to blame for all this intolerable.”
Macy’s character, in fact, is very invested in O’Brien’s experience, turning up with a six-pack of beer to get the next instalment – almost using O’Brien as his own surrogate to explore a first sexual experience he didn’t have. Given how ideal he is as a spiritual counsellor, it isn’t surprising that he’s made up. Of
all the characters in the film, this priest is the only one who isn’t real. He’s a creation to represent O’Brien’s deep Catholic roots.
O’Brien, who died in 1999 at the age of 49, was a journalist who wrote a lot about disability and he wrote poetry that is beautiful.
In Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien (1996), an Oscar-winning short documentary about him, he says: “The two mythologies about disabled people break down to, one, we can’t do anything or, two, we can do everything. But the truth is, we’re just human.”
This is what The Sessions is, a story about a human being who overcomes his physical challenges so that he can enjoy that most human of experiences: consensual and loving sexual intercourse.
The Sessions is a joyful film that will make you cry, a moving film that will make you laugh, but above all it is a tribute to a man who understood his limitations and fears – and then ignored them to live a more “normal” life.
» The Sessions opens on Friday.