Oh, baby, it’s sexual healing in The Sessions
TORONTO—When it comes to movies about sex, The Sessions comes closer than most to approximating the actual experience. It’s emotionally as well as physically explicit about what happens when coitus happens. So it’s sexy, yes, but be forewarned: you might also feel other, more complicated things.
The Sessions (opening Friday [November 2]) is neither a disease-of-the-month movie nor an artsy interpretation of disability nor a vehicle for actors with Oscar aspirations—though both the leads, John Hawkes and Helen Hunt, are sure to be awards-season contenders.
Hawkes, who often specializes in frightening and often murderous characters, here plays real-life protagonist Mark O’Brien, a childhood polio sufferer who was mostly paralyzed and spent his life on a gurney and in an iron lung.
Of his many disadvantages, O’Brien, who had a degree from UC Berkeley and was a published essayist, considered his virginity to be the most egregious. So, at 38 years old, he hired Cheryl, a sex surrogate (played by Hunt), to correct the situation.
O’Brien, who died in 1999 at age 49, was the subject of a 1996 Oscar-winning documentary (Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien, by Jessica Yu). Ben Lewin, the Australian writer-director of The Sessions, is himself a polio survivor. His script is adapted, quite faithfully, from O’Brien’s autobiographical essay “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate” as well as his book How I Became a Human Being: A Disabled Man’s Quest for Independence.
“The reason I wanted to tell the story is [primarily] because it was a good story,” Lewin, joining Hawkes, told the Georgia Straight at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. He said his first encounter with O’Brien’s writings was “a total accident, when I was surfing the Internet for all the wrong reasons. I saw Mark’s article and…it was a burning-bush moment, of which I’ve had very few. I thought that if I was emotionally affected, someone else would be as well.”
For Hunt, playing Cheryl was a physically exigent role that required several screen minutes of full-frontal nudity. Hawkes, for his part, had to replicate O’Brien’s scoliotic, painfully contorted physique, which, he said, was “difficult and physically demanding in ways I hadn’t expected. I was very interested…in seeing if I could somehow pull off Mark’s physical [reality] with no special effects,” he said, adding that there are no computer or makeup effects, body doubles, or prosthetics in the film.
“We took a piece of foam rubber and melted it into a ball the size of a soccer ball that was placed midway in the left side of my back throughout the film so I could have a curvature”—a process that, employed over several weeks of the shoot, caused some of Hawkes’s internal organs to shift.
The Sessions primarily depicts several encounters between O’Brien and Cheryl in which he loses his virginity and learns to accept himself as a sexual being. Hawkes said he hopes the film and his performance can contribute to a transformation in “how we relate to disabled people [instead of] being reminded of our own mortality and frailty”.
“Ben had written a great script, and I thought the character needed to fight self-pity at every turn,” he continued. “It’s really boring to watch a character wallow, even if they have every reason to; it’s much more interesting to watch them try to solve their problems, especially if they’re ill-equipped to do so. I also thought we should seek out humour wherever we could find it, because that says something interesting to me. I didn’t want Mark to be a saint; I wanted Mark to be a pain in the ass and an asshole, as we all are from time to time. Just a human being, really.”
“I would never have pitched this as a comedy,” Lewin said with a grin. “But when we showed this publicly and people were laughing at every point where there was a moment of humour, I thought, ‘My God, it is a comedy—or at least it’s totally confusing the issue of what is a comedy. And that’s the most gratifying thing!”
Watch the trailer for The Sessions.