The Sessions is a refreshing piece of damn good cinema.
The film explores the life of Mark O’Brien, a poet and journalist who suffered from polio, confined to an iron lung until his death at age 49. Ben Lewin, the director also lives with polio, and stumbled upon O’Brian’s article “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate” on the Internet. Lewin had wanted to write a film about the disabled in some capacity, and realized the huge potential in the O’Brian story. Before seeing a sex surrogate, O’Brian only had extremely embarrassing and negative experiences with his sexuality. The film is electrifying, and illuminates O’Brian experience with artful power and humor.
In his article, O’Brien explains how at first he couldn’t bring himself to make moves towards seeing this kind of therapist out of utter fear of his stern parents, who never discussed sexuality at all, and God.
“I suspected that my father and mother would know even before God did if I saw a surrogate,” O’Brien said. “The prospect of offending three such omniscient beings made me nervous.”
Another hurdle was his intense insecurity about his paralyzed body.
“I rationalized that someone who was not an attendant, nurse, or doctor would be horrified at seeing my pale, thin body with its bent spine, bent neck, washboard ribcage, and hipbones protruding like outriggers,” O’Brien said. “But he couldn’t go on the same way, having impromptu erections while his attendants gave him baths, and hoping someone would approach him.”
After a screening of the film at the Coolidge Corner Theater on September 30, John Hawkes, who plays O’Brien, Director Ben Lewin, and the producer, Judi Levine stuck around for a Q&A. John Hawkes, who undertakes the role with masterful artistry, said that he read everything he could get his hands on, such as Mark’s poems and essays, and used his video “Breathing Lessons” as a guidepost for understanding life from the perspective of someone with such a severe handicap. Hawkes emulated Mark’s movements and speech, using “soccer-ball-sized foam on his back” to make his body contort in the same ways.
“[Hawkes still] couldn’t help but bring anything related of myself to the character, as a creative being,” he said. “His sense of humor jives with mine on my best days.”
Hawkes, after spending so much shooting time lying in the iron lung, said he learned something of what it was like—sometimes he thought his “organs were migrating,” and often felt somewhat invisible lying there with the whole crew buzzing around at work. Hawkes took a lot away from the experience, and is even “still processing” it. Before the film, he “never learned to ‘see’ disabled people,” and now he feels as if he can really “see you.”
Lewin and the producer, Judi Levine, conferred heavily with the women in Mark’s life—the sex therapist herself, Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt) and Susan Fernbach, O’Brien’s partner for the last stretch of his life. The film does an excellent job of drawing from this well of rich material, and seeks to create an honest landscape of Mark’s life. Although the first audience he wanted to please was Mark’s family and the people who knew him, Lewin said he really wanted the film to be more of a “relationship movie rather than a biopic.” The controversy of the sex surrogacy itself is nullified by the film’s adept ability to balance these intense issues with an airy tone. Few scenes exist in this film that aren’t laden with rich humor (particularly hilarious are those with the priest, played by William H. Macy). The film makes the audience really feel what it’s like to be frustrated and out of touch with your own body—but doesn’t handle it in a way filled with awful sadness.
Honesty is exactly what you get in this film. Mark’s personality is self-deprecating but humorous and real—he refuses to be invisible, and he refuses to be perceived as pitiable. Helen Hunt, as the sex surrogate, beautifully handles her role with appropriate gravity and poise. This is a story that will absolutely touch you, tickle you (into rapturous laughter) and embrace you (not to play too obviously off of sex jargon).
After a man in the audience told everyone about how watching the film brought new light to his aunt’s experience in an iron lung, Lewin remarked, “In practically every audience, some individual has resonated with this personally.”