Mark O’Brien’s on a mission to finally lose his virginity in his late 30’s. With an intriguing group of sidekicks and friends helping him out along the way, he gets on the path of a sweet and touching lesson in companionship and human connection.
Sound familiar? It’s actually not really.
First, the back story: Ben Lewin’s The Sessions is based on the true story of the late poet and writer, Mark O’Brien, played with concise and poignant optimism by John Hawke (Winter’s Bone). O’Brien is trapped in an immobile body by childhood polio, and is attempting to lose his virginity at 38, in part for book research and partly for life experience before his impending death.
Aided along the way by a colourful cast of characters, including William H. Macy (Fargo) as the progressive priest Father Brendan and Helen Hunt (Pay it Forward) as the frequently naked sex surrogate, it’s a film that has been largely adapted from O’Brien’s real experiences, documented in his article On Seeing a Sex Surrogate, published in The Sun in 1990.
O’Brien is a strikingly positive reinforcement, despite losing virtually all muscle coordination – he wrote his stories and poems by pressing the buttons on a typewriter from a stick in his mouth. He spends his days horizontal, with his body awkwardly contorted, and is forced to rely on artificial respiration from an iron lung for all but a few hours a day. He’s not quiet about his need for companionship and desire to indulge his sexual curiosity, despite his iron lung cramping his style.
There’s a real depth of humanity here. But it’s not all about the life lessons. There’s an undertone of pervasive humor that plays out particularly well in scenes between O’Brien and Father Brendan. As a devout Catholic, O’Brien notes: “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.”
Being trapped by a disability is something that probably resonates for a lot of people – perhaps it’s not a physical disability, but they’re trapped by something – and this film marries such anxiety with good humor, expressing the almost simultaneous agony of severe disability with the ecstasy of relinquishing fear and the excitement of self-discovery.
There’s also a disarmingly light-hearted rapport between Hunt’s character Cheryl and O’Brien, even in the most intimately personal moments of the film when they’re lying naked in bed together, engaging in any kind of sexual experimentation (for him) that could otherwise have been extremely self-conscious. Well placed humour averts the awkward moments.
There’s also plenty to be said for Hunt’s “brave” nudity (and the fact that they chose to keep from showing anything at all of Hawke is another point to ponder about the way sex is depicted on screen), but her character is also brave. The Sessions takes leaps to respect Cheryl’s professionalism, making quick to point out (for the audience sake I can only assume) the differences between her profession as a sex therapist and the job of a prostitute.
It’s a fascinating to watch the unravelling of her intimate relationship with Mark and how it affects her emotionally, despite the well-grounded rules. There’s also the impact of her marriage as she attempts to hide her feelings for her patient from her jealous house-husband Josh played by Alan Arkin, and how the repercussions of that affects everyone else.
In the end, The Sessions is a sweet and hopeful exploration about the way humans connect. It’s about our how despite extreme circumstances, we’re all capable of overcoming obstacles, of being fearless and making it out on the other end.
The Sessions opens in Australian cinemas on November 8.
Women’s Agenda and Twentieth Century Fox invite you to attend the exclusive preview screening of The Sessions. Click here to RSVP now.
We have 28 double passes to give away to Women’s Agenda readers. Tickets are strictly limited and will be offered on a first come first serve basis.