“I am looking for an intelligent, literate woman for companionship and, perhaps, sexual play. I am…completely paralyzed so there will be no walks on the beach.”
When I try to imagine how I’d respond to losing the ability to move my body from the neck down and spending decades dependent on an iron lung, my first thought is not that the ordeal would inspire me to write poetry. So, whatever else we’re dealing with here, we are dealing with a story about a most unusual man. His name was Mark O’Brien and this is the second movie to be made about him.
The first-Jessica Yu’s 1996 short, Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien-won an Oscar. Many people who follow and handicap such things are expecting The Sessions to win at least one as well. Of course, these are the same folks who’ve been buzzing about Argo and Flight, two entertainments which didn’t exactly signal the start of awards season in my humble opinion. This time, though, I think they’ve got it right.
Not since De Niro have I watched an actor come out of nowhere to emerge as a dominant industry shapeshifter the way John Hawkes has done over the past decade. If you’ve seen his work in pictures such as Winter’s Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene, you’ll be absolutely taken aback by the performance he gives here. It’s a stunning departure from the intensely dark roles he’s best known for and nothing short of uncanny. With only his face and voice to use as instruments, Hawkes creates a character of almost inconceivable depth and richness.
When we’re first introduced to O’Brien, he’s 38 and working as a writer in Berkeley. Famous for tooling through the USC campus on his electrically-powered gurney, he has succeeded in earning a journalism degree and establishing himself as the go-to guy for articles on subjects related to the disabled in addition to becoming a published poet.
Movies, of course, have been made about accomplishments which seem far less significant than these, especially given that attendants assist with his most intimate needs, he types with a mouth-stick held in his teeth and all but a few hours each day must be spent locked in something that looks like a cross between a coffin and a miniature sub.
But The Sessions is about a different sort of achievement. Stricken with polio at the age of six, O’Brien is “approaching his use-by date” as he puts it to a sympathetic priest (William H. Macy) and doesn’t fancy the idea of going his whole life without ever knowing a woman “in the biblical sense.”
Enter a licensed surrogate played by Helen Hunt. Which (not exactly a spoiler) following a few bungled attempts, is precisely what Hawkes’ nerve-wracked character proceeds to do. The actress turns in a soulful, assured performance in the role of a wife and mother who makes her living teaching men the skills they’ll need to enjoy intimacy with other women. “Unlike a prostitute,” she jokes, “I don’t want your return business.”
Written and directed by Ben Lewin (who himself suffered from polio and walks with braces), the movie offers an unusually frank and frequently humorous meditation on the transformative power of connection. The filmmaker gives the historical record the Hollywood treatment. Lewin suggests, for example, that things between O’Brien and Cheryl Cohen Greene took a turn for the romantic they never actually did.
But hey, this isn’t supposed to be a documentary. For the facts of the matter, one can always hop online and read “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate,” the 1990 article by O’Brien which inspired the screenplay. For a smart and moving spin on real life events, we now have this first rate film.