Originally released 16 Nov 2012
Written and directed by Ben Lewin
Starring John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, and William H. Macy
My rating: ★★ 1/2 stars
Interesting story of disability and sex mired by a manipulative script.
I’m not a fan of puritanism when it comes to film. Many classic film fans object to films that contain graphic violence, nudity, or sex. These fans often post a line from a “Maxine” comic: “I miss the old-time stars. You know, the ones who wore clothes and had talent.” I made the claim to a group of classic film fans that more stories can be told now that the rules against sex, violence, and nudity have been relaxed. The response was unanimously that all stories can be told with only hinting at these objectionable qualities.
Now, it’s a matter of taste when someone prefers movies without nudity, sex, and violence, but it’s simply counterfactual to claim that all stories can be told without them. Savages (2012), which I reviewed a few weeks ago, could not tell its story without extreme violence. And The Sessions presents a story that cannot be told without nudity and graphic sex. It’s an important story that should be told.
The Sessions is based on the article “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate,” by poet Mark O’Brien (played in the film by John Hawkes). O’Brien came down with polio at six years old and spent the rest of his life in an iron lung. He died in 1999 shortly before his 50th birthday of post-polio syndrome. His story was told in an Academy Award-winning short documentary “Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien” (1997) made while he was still alive.
The Sessions focuses primarily on his treatment by sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Helen Hunt). A sex surrogate is a professional who engages in sexual conduct with people in a therapeutic capacity. The movie necessarily, then, needed to depict sexually graphic scenes.
I would guess that most people do not think of disabled people as being sexual. Sex is not just for beautiful people, as it is usually presented in movies. People with ordinary bodies have sex all the time, which is good because otherwise there wouldn’t be people. But we don’t like to think about people with abnormal bodies having sex. It makes us uncomfortable. Yet, disabled people are just as human as everyone else, and being human means being sexual (except for a small number of people who identify as asexual).
Disabled people often have special challenges when it comes to sexual behavior. As with Mark O’Brien, the mechanics of sex can pose difficulties. Beyond that, disabled people often have difficulty meeting and connecting with other people. Furthermore, in a culture that values beautiful bodies, disabled people can have difficulty finding partners. Finally, significantly, disabled people often feel alienated from their own bodies, the bodies that have failed them in some way. Sexual behavior involves an immediacy of being embodied that people with disabilities are often unused to. In one important scene in the film, which is described in O’Brien’s article, Cheryl holds a mirror up to Mark so he can see what his body looks like. At the time, he hadn’t seen his genitals in over 30 years.
The sex in the movie is not meant to titillate the audience. It’s meant to tell a story. That on-screen sex outside of pornography usually serves a narrative purpose is not something that the puritans recognize. The risk with this is that the depictions of sex would be at the other extreme of titillating—completely clinical. The movie does a good job with the sex scenes, which make up much of the movie’s running time. Director Ben Lewin films them in a hazy, soft light that brings us out of the clinical world while still presenting the sessions as therapeutic.
The movie gives us a great sense of the loneliness of Mark’s life. He lives alone. He has attendants come see to his needs every day, but they are employees. He doesn’t seem to have any friends. He works from home alone. While some disabled people maintain active and fulfilling social lives, disability can alienate people from the world. The film provides a funky priest (William H. Macy) for Mark to confide in, but that role seems to have been invented as a way for the film to show Mark’s internal life. (A with-it priest is mentioned once in O’Brien’s article, but he’s a minor figure.)
The flaws in the film come from the script, which was written by director Lewin. The film invents a budding romantic connection for Mark and Cheryl. I think Lewin wanted to beef up the conflict in the second half and present Cheryl as a round character who is personally conflicted. Also, I believe that Lewin felt the need to conform to the viewers’ expectations that sex contain emotional involvement, undermining the presentation of the profession of sex surrogacy. Nonetheless, the performance by Hunt is faultless. Hunt was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, but her role exists in the fuzzy place between lead and supporting. (Anne Hathaway won for Les Miserables.)
Hawkes perfectly captures O’Brien’s weak, Boston-accented voice. Few videos are available of O’Brien outside his iron lung, so it’s difficult to assess how well Hawkes captures the movement of his body. Performance isn’t imitation, however. Hawkes does an admirable job of creating the sense of Mark as character, not just a disability.
The Sessions works too hard to give Mark a happy ending. The movie makes us think that Mark spent the last years of his life happy and fulfilled, that he found true love, that he overcame the painful loneliness imposed on him by his disability. The reality is much messier, as life is when compared to movies. The untidiness of real life would have made for a more interesting film, one that didn’t try so hard to reach all the right emotional notes for the audience to applaud.
Life in an iron lung is not something people would choose for themselves. It’s not redemptive. It’s not inspirational. It’s not something that can be overcome through hard work. But it is life. The Sessions reminds us that disabled people desire the same things out of life that able-bodied people do. They want companionship, they want emotional connection, and they want sex. They want life.