In 1983, Berkeley poet and journalist Mark O'Brien wrote an article about sexual surrogates — women and men trained to help people with disabilities learn to use their bodies to give themselves and others erotic pleasure.
For O'Brien, the subject wasn't academic. After a bout of childhood polio, he had spent much of his life in an iron lung. He could talk, and tap out words on a typewriter holding a stick in his mouth. He could feel things below the neck. But he couldn't move his muscles.
In an article published in 1990, O'Brien admitted he was jealous of the people he'd interviewed in 1983 — it turns out he was, at the time, a virgin. The second piece was called, "On Seeing a Sex Surrogate," and it's the basis for the movie The Sessions.
Two things sneaked past my defenses against what I snarkily call the disability-of-the-week Oscar-bait picture. The first is that Mark, played by John Hawkes, is almost never seen at anything but a 90-degree angle, sometimes in his iron lung, sometimes on a rolling stretcher — never sitting up. That sidelong vantage creates a kind of distance and keeps the pathos from being in your face. The second is, he's so funny.
Hawkes bears little resemblance here to the meth-fueled uncle he played in Winter's Bone or the Manson-like cult leader in the film Martha Marcy May Marlene. His features are relaxed and his voice has no chest tones; he sounds like David Sedaris crossed with Liberace. He says at one point that he believes in God because he needs someone to blame for what happened to him.
When he asks his priest, Father Brendan, played by William H. Macy, for permission to have sex, he adds that it's urgent because he's nearing his "use-by date." Macy's determined attempt to remain impassive while Mark gives Father Brendan more details than he needs is a thing of beauty.
At heart, The Sessions is a tender sexual coming-of-age movie. Helen Hunt plays the surrogate, Cheryl Cohen-Greene. It's all legal, by the way — even kind of wholesome.
It's good to see Hunt. She was overexposed for a few years, had some bum roles and dropped out for a spell. Seeing her again reminds you how plain-in-a-good-way she can be, her emotions rising up as if by their own power and breaking through her levelheaded demeanor. She makes Cheryl's shedding of her clothes seem at once professional and human, and without a trace of exhibitionism.
The 66-year-old writer-director, Ben Lewin, is best known for TV dramas and comedies in Australia, the U.K. and Hollywood. He takes a simple, matter-of-fact approach that respects the audience — you don't feel him working you over.
At the same time, The Sessions doesn't have the power of the best films of its ilk — among them My Left Foot, with its raging, titanic performance by Daniel Day Lewis. The real O'Brien seen in Jessica Yu's Academy Award-winning 1996 short documentary Breathing Lessons looks considerably more anguished than the O'Brien here — as well as, at 4-foot-7 and 60 pounds, less solid than the tall and still-rangy Hawkes.
But I have a feeling that O'Brien, who died in 1999, would be pleased that his story has been told as a good comedy with tears instead of a weeper with laughs. It fits his naughty-Catholic-boy mischievousness — and his sideways vantage.