"'The Sessions' Provides an Enlightening View of Disability: A Film Review"
In 1997, I reviewed Breathing Lessons, the documentary about Mark O'Brien's life. In 1999, I got an e-mail from a mutual friend saying that O'Brien had died. I keep trying to imagine what he would have thought of The Sessions if he had been able to see the film. I envision him with a huge grin on his face, wondering why he didn't see comedy, as well as poetry, as a possible career option.
The Sessions is based on an article O'Brien published in 1990, "On Seeing a Sex Surrogate." O'Brien was a journalist who lived with the severe effects of the polio he contracted at age six. He spent the majority of his life in an iron lung, and he was only able to move three muscles below his waist. O'Brien lived in Berkeley, CA, where because of his severe back curvature he traveled the streets on an electric gurney.
The movie opens when O'Brien is 38 years old. Because he has never experienced sex, he decides to seek the help of a sexual surrogate. As he tells his priest, Father Brendan (played by William H. Macy), he is "approaching his use-by date." Father Brendan is sympathetic, and O'Brien, (played by John Hawkes) hires a professional sex surrogate, Cheryl Cohen Greene (played by Helen Hunt).
The movie is filled with humorous moments. After being unable to use the bed promised by a friend (the friend has forgotten and is having a party), O'Brien and Greene find a motel, accompanied by O'Brien's attendant. O'Brien's attendant goes into the motel to get a room for two hours so that O'Brien can have his therapy session. The attendant provides the hotel clerk with a graphic, no-details-spared description of the exact type of therapy involved.
Although humor abounds in the film, the therapy sessions are
endearing and modest. They show a man who blames himself for the tragic death of his younger sister from pneumonia. O'Brien internalized the belief that if his parents had not been so focused on his care, his sister might have lived.
The film is extremely well-written and has a rare depth and complexity. The writer and director of the film, Ben Lewin, has polio himself, and decided to write the film after reading O'Brien's article. The casting of John Hawkes is superb; the actor really captures the cadence of O'Brien's speech as I remember it from our phone conversation after Breathing Lessons.
Cheryl Cohen Greene and Susan Fernbach, O'Brien's partner for the last five years of his life, were both consulted for the film. Fernbach had also worked with O'Brien on publishing several chapbooks of O'Brien's poetry through their Lemonade Factory Press. Cheryl Cohen Greene has a new book out about being a sexual surrogate, which includes O'Brien's Love Poem for No One in Particular, which was used in the film. And the book that O'Brien was working on before he died, How I Became a Human Being, was released posthumously with author Gillian Kendall.
The film is a stellar achievement in storytelling, with riveting acting by both Helen Hunt and John Hawkes. The fact this film is receiving so much buzz for awards is not hype — I've never walked out of a theater so exhilarated after seeing a film, and seldom do I want to see a film multiple times in the theater. The Sessions is a rare film with a superb cast that I recommend everyone see before it gets nominated for all sorts of awards. The film is currently showing in Maine in Portland, Brunswick, and Waterville. To find a theater near you, check the film's website. The Sessions is rated R for adult themes and nudity.