‘The Sessions’: Finding his groove

October 18, 2012

Sex is a magnetic force, one that attracts and repels with equal force. Those impulses can be electrifying or awkward, drawing us desperately while tripping us up regularly.

To make it even more difficult, this primal bit of attraction comes freighted with teachings about morality, religion and hygiene. Now add in the contradictions between them and what are you going to make of it?

Which is what makes Mark O’Brien’s story both memorable and compelling. As abstracted in Ben Lewin’s film, “The Sessions,” it’s the tale of a first-time sexual adventurer, launching himself into a world of intimacy he previously thought would be denied to him. The film opens Friday (10/19/12) in limited release.

O’Brien, who died in 1999 at 49, is played by the always surprising John Hawkes. First seen in his 30s, O’Brien has battled to graduate from the University of California-Berkeley. It’s the late 1980s and O’Brien, in his mid-30s, is, in essence, a quadriplegic; having contracted polio as a youngster, before the release of the polio vaccine, he spends his nights in an iron lung and his days being wheeled around on a gurney. He is not exactly paralyzed; it’s just that, from the neck down, as he puts it, “My muscles don’t work so well.”

Yet his mind is active, and he has fashioned a career for himself as an independent-living writer, working as a journalist and writing poetry. He relies on home-health attendants to give him mobility and care, but his career is his own. And it is a journalism assignment that launches him on the adventure that comprises much of this film.

The story he’s working on involves sex among the disabled. As he travels around the Bay Area, asking other handicapped people about the things they’re forced (or willing) to do to achieve sexual satisfaction with a partner, he gets an idea: that, at the age of 35, he’d like to experience sexual pleasure himself.

Two things seem to stand in his way. First is his condition, which will require a partner who is willing to, in essence, do all the work. Perhaps even more daunting: his Catholicism. He is a fervent Catholic, well aware of the church’s proscriptions against extramarital fooling around. But he finds an understanding priest in Father Brendan (William H. Macy) because, hey, it’s the Bay Area.

Which leads Mark to Cheryl Greene (Helen Hunt), a sexual surrogate whose job it is to work with men to help them learn how to obtain sexual pleasure. Mark finally decides that he wants to try sex – and he hires Cheryl to be his guide.

Lewin’s film then becomes a journey of personal discovery – for both Mark and Cheryl. She’s a married professional, a therapist with a husband (Adam Arkin), who understands her work and thinks he has no fears or insecurities about it. Cheryl’s task is to teach Mark to take his time (he tends to erupt prematurely) and simply get out of his own head and be in the moment. Mark, in turn, teaches Cheryl about a life lived moment to moment, in a world where each moment might be his last.

Lewin’s film deals with subject matter and scenes that could easily be treated with smarmy winks. Instead, it’s just sex – human bodies coupling in search of pleasure and intimacy. It’s not about prurience; in some ways, it’s a little like watching a physical therapist with a patient. Yet, for a character like Mark, captured in a blend of delight, guilt and simple thoughtfulness by Hawkes, there is so much more involved: an affirmation of his essential humanity, something he never thought he’d find.

Hunt is his care-giver in the fullest sense of the world. Yet even as Mark struggles with wholly appropriate and understandable emotions, Hunt conveys the slight remove of the therapist, who separates from the patient – even as she captures the depth to which Mark’s inquisitive and accepting spirit invades her own, to an almost unsettling extent. They don’t have a romantic relationship, but their feelings are every bit as intimate.

“The Sessions” is the sleeper hit of the year, a rocket out of Sundance trailing Oscar nominations for Hawkes and Hunt and, with luck, writer-director Lewin. And after you’ve seen and enjoyed it, you can tell people they have to see that film about the quadriplegic and the sex surrogate because it will make them laugh and cry. And you won’t be exaggerating.

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