Getting Busy: Mark O’Brien’s Introduction to Sex Opens Doors

City Pulse | October 15, 2012
The most unlikely film of 2012, “The Sessions” is a defiant romantic comedy of serious import that pushes the boundaries of R-rated intimacy. The film’s sex-positive message is so persuasively articulated that it overrides the material’s pornographic content. Writer-director Ben Lewin based “The Sessions” on Mark O’Brien’s essay “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate.”

That the film’s frank sexual interactions occur between a male polio victim, who can only exist outside of an iron lung breathing apparatus for a few hours at a time, and his caring sex therapist, adds considerably to its dramatic complexity. Think “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” except with instructive, meaningful sex.

Accomplished character-actor John Hawkes (“Contagion”) is entirely empathetic, but never pathetic, as Mark O’Brien, a 38-year-old polio victim who spends his time writing poetry from the iron lung bed of his Berkeley home in the late ‘80s. He uses his mouth to hold a special stick he uses to operate a computer and telephone. Barely able to move his body below the neck, Mark is most frequently at the mercy of his immediate caregiver, who massages his muscles and bathes him. Bathing sessions sometimes result in involuntary ejaculations that cause Mark untold humiliation. In the comfort of his Catholic church, Mark seeks the advice of his local priest/therapist Father Brendan (played for humor by William H. Macy) about firing the brusk caregiver who marginally mistreats him. You can guess at Father Brendan’s candid response. Macy’s preposterous character serves primarily as an obligatory narrative-framing device. It’s not the best choice the filmmaker could have made, but it serves its intended purpose well enough.

Mark’s participation in a sex survey regarding people with disabilities exposes him to the active sex lives of other disabled individuals. It also informs him about the availability of a sex surrogate capable of ushering him through the loss of his virginity, something that looms large on Mark’s bucket list. Mark’s irrepressible spirit is a force to be reckoned with. Thru the assistance of his newly acquired assistants Vera (Moon Bloodgood) and Rod (W. Earl Brown), Mark nervously makes his way to his weekly two-hour sex sessions.

Helen Hunt offers up a beautifully candid and fearless portrayal as Cheryl Cohen Green, the dedicated sex therapist who agrees to meet with Mark for six sex appointments. The weight of the movie rests on Hunt’s ability to open up Mark’s, and de facto the audience’s, sense of sexual understanding. The film impressively covers a lot of sex-positive ground during Chery’s and Mark’s fully nude encounters. Cheryl is a wife and mother whose philosopher husband Josh (Adam Arkin) is given to “deep-thinking and playing guitar.” Cheryl and Josh’s relationship presents the movie with its weakest subplot thanks Josh’s ostensibly uncharacteristic jealousy that breaks his character. Considering that Josh views his wife as a “saint” for her ability to share her body with others for the purpose of healing, it doesn’t make sense that he open his wife’s mail to discover a brief love poem from Mark.

The crux of the movie comes down to the beautifully handled sensual encounters between Mark and Cheryl. The brutal honesty on display is refreshing for the generous intentionality behind them. Sex is shown as a good and essential aspect of expression for all people regardless of their disabilities. Alongside the recent Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones comedy “Hope Springs,” here is an illuminating movie version of sexual therapy capable of cleansing its audience, regardless of their personal hang-ups.

Rated R. 98 mins. (B+) (Four Stars – out of five/no halves)

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