Friday, November 23, 2012

The Sessions: Notes on Hiring a Sex Surrogate

     Mark O'Brien is a poet and journalist. He is also (basically) paralyzed from the neck down from contracting polio when he was a child, spending most of his life either inside an Iron Lung--one of those large medical ventilators that allows a person who has lost most muscle control to breathe with regularity--or being wheeled around on a gurney by a revolving door of caregivers that also feed, wash, and clothe him. Mark, always up for an experiment, begins to wonder what it would be like to be intimate with a woman (he's a virgin). Although he doesn't have control over any part of his body below his neck, he still has sensations and can fully achieve erections and ejaculation, but he doesn't have any control of either. So he hires a sex surrogate--a semi-prostitute that allows people with sexual problems to experience their innermost desires in a controlled environment. This is the true story that The Sessions is based on, a short and sweet film written and directed by Ben Lewin (a polio survivor himself) that ranks among the year's best due to its touching performances, particularly John Hawkes as the disabled Mark O'Brien.
     This is a great adult movie about sex and desire that doesn't resort to gross-out gags or rely on the physiques of flawless actors to tell its story. Mark (Hawkes) is a lover at heart: he has a way with words and a self-deprecating humor that women find charming, especially since words are all Mark can use to woo. Though Mark is very religious, and he begins a fruitful friendship with Father Brendan, a new priest at his church played with humor and sensitivity by William H. Macy, intimacy with a woman is all he really desires: he wants to do this because he thinks his time is running out. God will give him a free pass and look the other way for this minor sin. The heart of the film is Mark getting wheeled from place to place, usually to confessional with Father Brendan or to a private room where Mark starts his sessions.
     The sessions are extremely nerve-wracking for Mark, particularly the first one. His aid, Vera (Moon Bloodgood), a nice young woman who would do anything for Mark, wheels him into a room, places him on the bed (the real O'Brien was only 4'7" and 60 pounds) and he waits for the surrogate. Mark has only spoken to her on the phone to arrange the meeting. He's never seen her. The tension is palpable: will the woman live up to Mark's expectations? Will she be gentle enough (Mark only likes to be touched very delicately)? Will he find her attractive? The "She" in question is Cheryl (Helen Hunt), and she grounds the film in a reality instead of letting it slip away into a Lifetime movie corniness. Hunt's performance is tactical and brave (not just because she's fully nude in most of her scenes). She takes her profession seriously and thinks of herself as more psychiatrist than slut. She's married to a philosopher that doesn't mind her odd profession and has a teenage son.
    Knowing that Mark, due to his condition and lack of relationship experience, becomes attached quickly and easily falls in love, Cheryl sets up some important ground rules: they will only meet six times, and it won't get too personal. They'll focus on "body awareness exercises", finally culminating in the last session where they will finish with real intercourse with actual, honest-to-goodness penetration. Through these sessions, we learn more about these two characters and what exactly they want out of life. And wouldn't you know it? These two begin to grow more during these two-hour meetings than they have during the past years of their auto-pilot lives.
     It's a nice story, one that brings smiles and tears through honesty and sadness. But it's a great movie for one reason and one reason only: the performance of John Hawkes as Mark O'Brien. For the past few years (particularly as the meth-addicted Teardrop in Winter's Bone and the chilling cult leader Patrick in Martha Marcy May Marlene), Hawkes has been able to live inside his roles with a realism that makes it seem like you're watching a real person instead of an actor portraying a character. He's never been better than here: Spending the entire film on his back, his spine bent at a sharp angle (he supposedly filmed the entire movie with a large foam piece under his back, causing actual back problems [not that minor back pain compares to having actual polio]), Hawkes builds a character with a high-pitched questioning voice and realistic facial expressions that show happiness and sadness in equal, exquisite measure. Through his performance--and to a lesser extent, Hunt's--we realize that The Sessions is about care and kindness, the kind that goes far beyond asking "How are you?" without expecting or caring about an answer. It's about experiencing what you want in life, whether you're paralyzed and stuck in an Iron Lung or healthily walking on your own two feet.     (A)

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