Helen Hunt as a sex surrogate for a polio survivor
Published: November 7, 2012
Written and directed by Ben Lewin
Opens at the Charles Theatre on Nov. 9
Sex and the disabled: It’s an uncomfortable pairing for the average person. Initially, the combination seems almost inappropriate—and that thought dashes through one’s head once during The Sessions, when the polio-plagued protagonist, Mark, a 38-year-old virgin, screams in pain as his sex surrogate undresses him for the first time. This isn’t right, one thinks, this shouldn’t happen.
And just as quickly, that notion is overturned, denied; one realizes they have fallen prey to a faulty line of thinking that essentially treats the physically disabled as children, ill equipped to make their own decisions. The Sessions deftly dispels this logic from start to finish. Along the way, it explores sex and attachment with the bare-naked honesty of a Dan Savage column.
Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), a witty, pensive writer, spends most of his time in the confines of his iron lung. (The real Mark O’Brien was also the subject of Jessica Yu’s 1996 documentary short, Breathing Lessons.) He gets out for a few hours at a time. Attendants roll him around Berkeley on a gurney. They become his avenues to the outside world; naturally, he wants to take a pleasant route, so he hires the inexperienced but adorable Amanda (Annika Marks), who dotes on him even in the presence of her boyfriend. Mark pines for her, but when he reveals the depth of his infatuation, Amanda bolts.
When an editor rings Mark and asks him to write a series of articles on sex and the disabled, he agrees and, in doing so, pushes himself to confront his desire for sexual contact head-on. Embarking on a series of interviews with Vera, his slightly homely new attendant (Moon Bloodgood), a mortified but quietly eager Mark listens to explicit descriptions of sex, narrated by wheelchair-bound friends. Hemmed in by his own handicap and mental hang-ups, but immersed in carnal thought, he seeks out a sex therapist, who recommends him to a sex surrogate, Cheryl (Helen Hunt).
Cheryl’s meetings with Mark are physical and emotional therapy sessions, of which there is a limit (no more than six). With the air of supreme self-confidence that Hunt typically brings to the screen, she broaches Mark’s pent-up, guilt-ridden desires with candor. The sessions start out with the expected awkwardness—Mark has less stamina than an excitable high schooler—but proceed nevertheless, with Cheryl instructing him to never tolerate an unpleasant touch.
What transpires between the two is sex without inhibition, sex that everyone would opt to have, given the right partner: judgment-free interaction, with play-by-play feedback, followed by post-coital analysis. Cheryl rubs Mark’s ear, he tells her it feels weird. She lifts his powerless hand and helps him caress her breast. He blows his load. They go on. Cheryl is unabashed and understanding at every turn. Mark struggles through, though his psychological blocks present some hurdles. He begins to learn.
After each session, Cheryl goes home and records her observations, one of the more obvious demarcations between sex surrogate and prostitute. The other difference is her willingness to assist Mark in overcoming his own physical shame. Though trite to say, Cheryl allows Mark to make love to her, and she reciprocates. She lets herself care for him. In maybe the third session, for the first time, we see the pair kissing on the mouth. The scene evokes Pretty Woman and Julia Roberts’ character’s one rule (never on the mouth), whether director Ben Lewin intended this or not. It’s clear in that moment what Cheryl offers—not sex for money, but meaningful, intimate exchanges.
While the treatment of the lives of the disabled is at times cursory (Vera and Mark’s relationship, for instance, could have been expanded to examine aide-patient interactions more fully), Lewin wisely narrows the scope of the movie, focusing on Mark and Cheryl. John Hawkes innervates the pale, bony, motionless Mark with personality. He’s charmingly self-deprecating, cracking jokes about his disability and his religion, and he’s unflinchingly vulnerable. He regularly relates every painstaking detail to his priest, Father Brendan, played by William H. Macy, spaniel-like with his long, flowing hair and wide eyes that shine with a faraway yearning when Mark recounts his sexual experiences to him. Helen Hunt literally bares all as Cheryl, who sheds her professionalism momentarily in order to share a deeper experience with Mark.
Based on the late Mark O’Brien’s 1990 article, “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate,” The Sessions is a brief encounter, a mere 95 minutes long. The pacing is perhaps the only jarring aspect of the film. The wind-up is fun, quick, comedic. Then, time is lavished on the sessions, which only amount to about a month of Cheryl and Mark’s lives. The emotional and physical relationship between the pair is fully developed; one feels as though more movie-time elapses than actually does. Their story line’s peak arrives, slowly but steadily, and we can savor its meaningfulness and its sadness for a moment—and then, within what feels like a few minutes, the movie winds down, wraps up, ends neatly tied, badda bing, badda boom, done. For a movie so tender in its examination of sex, the audience could use some more post-climax cuddling.
But the rapid finish may be fitting, for the flow of the movie mimics the progression of an emotionally significant physical encounter with hard-and-fast limits: it’s enjoyable, engrossing, and over all too fast. Attachments formed with such intensity are best ended quickly and efficiently, remembered fondly but at a distance, lessons learned, to be applied the next time around.
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