Film review of The Sessions

November 15, 2012

(This film review of “The Sessions” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 15 November 2012 in a shorter form.)

Written and directed by Ben Lewin

Starring John Hawkes, Helen Hunt and William H. Macy

“The Sessions” is a challenging and frequently moving film about a highly unusual subject:  sex and the disabled.  The film is set in Berkeley, California in 1988 and tells the story of how Mark O’Brian, a severely disabled writer and poet who eventually received a Masters degree in journalism, strove – against high odds – to become a sexual being.

It wasn’t easy.  And the film takes on a particular power because its basic elements are all true, going so far as to keep the real names of most of the major characters.  There was a real Mark O’Brian, who was paralysed from the neck down and forced to spend most of his time in an “iron lung” to help him breathe.  He did contract polio as a child and at age 38 decided that he wanted to lose his virginity.  He found a sex therapist – Cheryl Cohen Greene – with whom he learned how to have intercourse.

Australian-Jewish director Ben Lewin, who himself survived polio as a child and has walked with crutches since, directed the film and wrote the screenplay from O’Brian’s 1990 article entitled “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate”.  To establish the credibility of “The Sessions”, the real Cheryl Cohen Greene and a later partner of Mark’s – Susan Fernbach – both worked as consultants to the film.  It is clear, however, that Lewin’s own life experiences are reflected in this film in some very profound ways, with Lewin describing O’Brian as a “soul mate”.

John Hawkes, an able-bodied actor, plays Mark O’Brian, whose disabilities were so severe that he could only lie down on a portable bed and move his head to type – with painstaking slowness – his poems and articles.  O’Brian had to be wheeled around by a carer everywhere he went, particularly after his motorised gurney was taken away from him because he had had too many accidents while driving it himself.

Hawkes, best-known for his Oscar-nominated performance as “Teardrop” in the 2010 film “Winter’s Bone”, delivers an extraordinary performance in the role, where the character cannot move and can only portray emotion through his face and voice.  Except for too many muscles on a body that has not moved for three decades (the real O’Brian was only 140 centimetres tall and weighed 27 kilos); the performance is convincing, very funny and devoid of sentimentality.

Helen Hunt plays Cheryl Cohen Greene, the sex therapist – married to a Jewish man (played by Adam Arkin) and with one child at home.  The role demands that Hunt is frequently naked, and the film includes full frontal nudity and a number of simulated sex acts.  This is a brave performance, and Hunt’s combination of emotional brittleness and energy are almost perfectly suited for this role.  I will be very surprised if both Hawkes and Hunt are not nominated for Academy Awards early next year; these are the sort of challenging and tough roles that the Oscar voters love and that set “The Sessions” apart from previous films about disability.

“The Sessions” title refers to the therapy sessions which Greene and O’Brian have, limited by Greene to a maximum of six.  The third major character who appears in the film is a wise and supportive priest named Father Brendan, played with warmth and empathy by William H. Macy.  This role appears to be manufactured for the film, giving the audience an opportunity to “get inside” O’Brian’s head, exploring his Catholic guilt and his own emotional journey.  It also gives Macy some of the film’s best lines, delivered with a wry and clever demeanour that goes a long way to restoring faith in the Church’s ability to counsel its parishioners.

Jewish audiences will most likely respond to a fascinating scene towards the end of “The Sessions”, when Cheryl Cohen Greene – who is formally converting to Judaism – goes to a mikvah (the attendant is played by noted Jewish actress Rhea Perlman).  The mikvah’s symbolic cleansing – likely to be lost on most non-Jews – here operates both for her upcoming conversion as well as her choice of unusual occupation.

I lived in Berkeley, California in the late 1970s and my time there overlapped with Mark O’Brian’s.  As a result, I was a bit disappointed that the film only briefly touches on the social and political environment of Berkeley, a city which is the national centre for disability rights and home of the world’s first centre for independent living for disabled people.  Only one other disabled character appears in the “The Sessions”, and an uninformed viewer might think that Mark O’Brian’s situation was more unique than it really was.  Many of the hundreds of severely physically disabled people who live in and near Berkeley are sexually active.  O’Brian’s challenges and his efforts to overcome them were certainly unusual, but mostly of degree.  Much of this has already been covered in a 35-minute 1996 Oscar-winning short film entitled “Breathing Lessons” by Jessica Yu.

“The Sessions” tries very hard to transcend its subject – how a man overcomes great barriers to become sexual – and mostly succeeds, providing clear insights into what really matters in relationships and life.  Tender, funny, touching and unsentimental, its subject may not appeal to all audiences and is probably not suited for casual dates.  “The Sessions” is also inspiring and uplifting and unlike any other film you will see this year.

Here is a trailer for “The Sessions”:

Postscript:  A good source of information about Mark O’Brian is this October 22, 2012 San Jose Mercury article on O’Brian by Karen D’Souza.  The official website for the film is here.