Detailing the sexual and emotional needs of the severely disabled in a frank but sensitive manner, The Sessions is an inspirational and deeply resonant film, especially for the physically disadvantaged, who deserve a big screen love story that reflects their experience, writes Timothy E. RAW, who also talks to stars John Hawkes and Helen Hunt and producer Judi Levine on the red carpet.
As someone with cerebral palsy I wasn't always as I am now. Years of physiotherapy, a tremendous amount of personal support and three functional corrective surgeries have seen my body transform and my mastery of it improve miraculously over the years. I wasn't afflicted as severely as others I grew up with on hospital wards, but enough that for a long time, I was unable to walk. Graduating steadily from wheelchair to zimmer frame to my own two legs, there was a time when my feet dragged and swung inward, my knees buckled and banged together and my hands twisted in on themselves, flailing uselessly at the wrist, curled fingers and toes locked in spastic paralysis. This was a time when my abnormal gait and impaired motor functions made people uncomfortable enough that they often crossed the street when they saw me coming. By the time I gained some semblance of control of my legs and a range of motion in my hands and wrists, any shred of self-confidence I might've had with the opposite sex was completely shot. One of many operations had also claimed a couple of inches of bone, making me that much shorter than my already diminutive height (a lot of the time, a bigger deal breaker than cerebral palsy it turns out) and to this day, I still walk with an unmistakable limp.
Nowadays, so long as I 'm not walking around, I otherwise appear completely normal. For this reason, the significant part cinema plays in my life is not so hard to fathom. The darkness allows me to hide. It's the one place where no one knows what's wrong with me.
Now as able-bodied as I'm ever likely to be, I try my best to stay positive. I've been on plenty of first-last dates, but have never "dated". Repeated rejection breeds self-consciousness, as you begin to wonder just how much your disability defines you as a potential partner. Your personality starts wildly overcompensating to the point where you're no longer you. Being comfortable with other people is that much harder when you're so profoundly uncomfortable in your own skin.
In a wheelchair you know exactly where you sit in terms of not being looked at as a sexual being. Walking around like everyone else, you start to believe in the cruel, ever-present possibility of hope, even as the expected relationships and sexual life that defines so many people you know seem less and less likely. It's rare, if ever that a film like The Sessions can help put all this in perspective, but not unexpected given the severity of the protagonist's condition relative to my own.
The incredible true story of poet and journalist Mark 'O Brien (John Hawkes) is the story of one man's struggle with polio and desire. Born with one, the other was hidden and denied till much later in life. With a life expectancy of eighteen months, O'Brien lived inside an iron lung for over thirty years without any physical contact besides his carers. Towards the end of his life, O'Brien then decided he wanted to live some kind of sexual life before he died.
After going to school on a motorized gurney, majoring in English and graduating (despite only being able to hold a pencil in his mouth), this was a man who just wouldn't give up and for whom nothing seemed impossible. So why not a relationship with a woman?
The story is sure to resonate in the hearts of many disabled people with a desire to experience a romantic relationship. So much more than a hopeless disabled person's schmaltzy quest to get laid, The Sessions is a compassionate character study of a man in whom a seldom-considered audience will be able to recognize themselves on screen. Be it polio or cerebral palsy, the film will speak to any physically disadvantaged person with unfilled dreams of taking a partner to bed, or even touching them. It's important to remember that the deep uncertainty as to whether these passions will be realized is a fear shared by a larger community so many of us forget (or don't want to be reminded) we belong to. If the feel-good ending too easily soothes much of the preceding heartache with Hollywood fantasy which gives little cause for hope in the real word, it still does much to remind us of the many courageous struggles outside our own. Significantly, those with disabilities will feel much less alone after having seen it, perhaps the highest recommendation I can bestow.
Many members of this particular audience will cry (as I did throughout) in recognition of O'Brien's loneliness, feeling like "dried out bubblegum stuck under the desk of existence", always in somebody's way. When one of his carers finds herself falling for his brilliant mind and beautiful soul, the silent, teary revelation that she can't go through with it, for fear of the reaction of those around her and the doubts of being able to cope with his physicality outside of work hours, hit uncomfortably close to home. The hurtfulness of her familiar "you need me more than I need you" look, which leaves O'Brien determined to have the evil satisfaction of proving her wrong, acquires a wounding intensity on a big screen, backed by Marco Beltrami's regretful, pensive score.
Pushing this anger down deep, O'Brien's voyage of sexual discovery and of reinventing the way he's seen by others begins with changing the way he sees himself - a tall order given his devout Catholicism and ridiculous belief that he doesn't deserve sex. It's a feeling tempered by the dry humour which defined O'Brien's personality and greatly informs the warmth of Hawkes' performance. "If I wasn't religious who else could I blame this on?" he quips to his priest, played by none other than William H. Macy, himself a contributor to the pantheon of great disabled performances, having previously played a door-to-door salesman with cerebral palsy in the HBO film Door to Door.
O'Brien's more general feelings of guilt towards his parents will ring true to most disabled viewers, religious or otherwise. "They gave me a life and gave up theirs" is a thought common to anyone who's ever been dependent on their parents as carers. This guilt extends to the great shame and mortification O'Brien feels at ejaculating in front of his hired hands, terrified of and never able to enjoy his sexual urges, as he's never masturbated or had someone do it for him.
Living in a coffin with space just enough for his head and with only a finger's width of air, O'Brien is trapped in a machine that measures what he's missing out on in life with every breath.
For all these reasons and more, able bodied viewers will certainly have their eyes opened by The Sessions, forced to consider all the physical freedoms they take for granted.
In preparation for his own sexual awakening, O’Brien is guided by his journalistic instinct. Interviewing disabled people in relationships about the practicalities of their sex life, he finds himself playing an anthropologist of sorts, noting down the infinite ways in which physical concessions must be made and emotional expectations suitably adjusted. In one instance, there’s a woman who, due to her decreased range of movement, can’t achieve sufficient depth of penetration to get off. Such a shattering admission is humorously balanced by one man’s claim to have become an expert at cunnilingus because his taste buds are shot from all the marijuana he’s been smoking. “You need stamina!” he tells us. Such honesty is hilarious in its candor and extremely moving in its adaptable perseverance.
This same sense of frailty and exposure in Hawkes’ central performance is remarkable, not just for the way he transforms the curvature of his body and lends a clenched quality to his voice, but that the role itself is such a drastic three-sixty from the recent work for which he’s best known; the fearsome felon of Winter’s Bone and the insidious manipulator of Martha Marcy May Marlene. Used as we are, to seeing him so mature and grizzled (like a better-looking, sharper dressed Harry Dean Stanton), Hawkes uses something as simple as facial hair to effectively sculpt character. Take a razor to him and all the hardness and years just seem to fall away.
His complete transformation is an impressive feat all by itself, but it’s the way in which Hawkes wears disability like a second skin that is nothing short of miraculous. Never relying on, or overplaying O’Brien’s physical state, Hawkes inhabits a state of mind; expressing can-do determination, rejection of pity and wily rebelliousness, all while lying on his back and only moving from the neck up. If that’s not worth an Academy award nomination, I’m not sure what is. An obvious selection, ignored in the same manner as Rust and Bone for best actress, disability is clearly a passé trend for voters this year.
Meanwhile, Helen Hunt did get the nod from the Academy, and while her nomination affirms her co-star’s inexcusable absence, it’s nevertheless, thoroughly deserved. As Cheryl, a sexual specialist known as a ‘surrogate’ (not to be confused with prostitute), Hunt is perfect casting, having already proven to have something of a knack for playing lover and teacher to society’s outcasts, opposite a paralyzed man in The Waterdance and an obsessive compulsive in As Good as it Gets. Despite already having one Oscar to her name, you won’t have seen much of Hunt in the film’s trailer, as the majority of her scenes are spent naked in bed with Hawkes, but clothed or unclothed, she's incredibly comfortable with her body, putting the audience at ease in potentially awkward scenes that could so easily come off as exploitative and distasteful. That line is never crossed because like Cheryl, director Ben Lewin, establishes clear boundaries in the six sessions between the two characters, which ultimately are much more about Cheryl showing O’Brien how to be physically kind to another human being than they are about getting her client’s rocks off. Starting by running her hand through O’Brien’s hair, massaging his ears, and rubbing his chest, the attention paid to the body through touch, and the way the camera hangs on Cheryl’s every caress is far more erotic than any amount of thrusting and grunting.
When it comes to the mechanics of lovemaking, O’Brien’s condition obviously makes it very difficult and the empathy in these moments of frustration and embarrassment, where the struggle of simply removing a shirt is dwelled upon, has much to do with Lewin being a survivor of polio himself. Steering well clear of beautifully crafted movie sex, everything under the sheets feels true to life, impromptu and more than a little ridiculous. Detaching itself from its own tactile eroticism, the film boldly explores the psychological implications of touch and the dangers of transference in such a context. Having just had intercourse for the first time, Cheryl becomes a multifunctional all-purpose woman to smitten O’Brien: mother, teacher, lover and best friend. After he achieves penetration, unsurprisingly he wants more. He wants to make her come; to be remembered as more than just another patient. He wants his first (and likely last) sexual encounter to matter. With the looming disappointment of his sessions coming to an end, the growing attachment is not as one-sided as it ought to be given the professional pretense. In the words of Cameron Crowe, "When you sleep with someone, your body makes a promise whether you do or not". Lewin shows us how the intensity of their time together affects both parties and while you might be left sobbing, this is so much more than O’Brien’s sob story.
Detailing the sexual and emotional needs of the severely disabled in a frank but sensitive manner, The Sessions is an inspirational and profoundly important film for the physically marginalized, one I’ve been waiting my whole life to be made.
Lead actors Helen Hunt and John Hawkes and producer Judi Levine talk about the film to Timothy E. RAW at the 56th London Film Festival. The video has been optimised to be viewed full screen at 720p, which can be selected in the settings pop-up in the control bar.
Film clips courtesy of Fox Searchlight via Premier Communications.