Friday, October 26, 2012

 

The Sessions

The Sessions Let's face it: sex is still a taboo in American culture. You can do it, but you are not supposed to talk about it. However, for a disabled person, doing it may even become a problem, and talking about a disabled person's sex is almost unheard of.

Twenty-two years ago, paralyzed Berkeley poet Mark O'Brien published an essay "On Seeing a Sex Surrogate" (The Sun, May 1990). It chronicles his quest to experience one of the most profound human activities. I suspect many people have read it. That may be forever changed by director Ben Lewin's funny, candid, and moving film "The Sessions" (USA 2012 | 94 min.). The film is based on Mark O'Brien's true story described in his essay, and it wins the Audience Award and a special Jury Prize at 2012 Sundance Film Festival. It surely will get more nominations for the upcoming Academy Awards.

Paralyzed by polio in his childhood, Mark (John Hawkes) is confined to bed with an iron lung and can breathe on his own only for few hours each day. Although he can only move his head a little bit, his mind appears to be sharper than any able body. He is a poet, a journalist, a charming soul, and foremost, an extraordinary human being who refuses to give in. He uses a mouth-stick to write when he is not using it to talk with wit and humor.

That's not enough. At the age of 38, after philosophical yet hilarious discussions with Father Brendan (William H. Macy), he decides to hire a professional sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Helen Hunt) to lose his virginity.

Both Mark and Cheryl take on the unusual challenge that changes both their lives in many ways.

Helen Hunt and John Hawkes in THE SESSIONS. Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

Being a victim of polio himself, director Ben Lewin seems able to connect with his characters on a personal level. He tells Mark's story with striking honesty without being sentimental. He never makes the audience feel sorry for Mark's condition. Instead, he magically inspires the audience with Mark's positive vibe and his uplifting spirit. And, he is telling Mark's incredible story that involves having sex with his a paralyzed body, no less.

Both John Hawkes and Helen Hunt are pitch perfect in the film. Although I have seen many characters who are paralyzed in films such as "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" (Le scaphandre et le papillon | France 2007), John Hawkes's outstanding performance in this film is the most mesmerizing one and certainly the funniest one. He vividly brings Mark to life by simply using his sensitive facial expressions and his quirky voice. The rest casts are also superb and generate numerous comic moments, especially William H. Macy who terrifically plays Father Brendan.

By losing his virginity, Mark gains new experience and achieves a new level on living life to the fullest. Brilliantly shares Mark's story, this touching and hilarious film is a celebration of sexuality as well as humanity.

"The Sessions," a Fox Searchlight Pictures release, opens on Friday, October 26, 2012 at Bay Area theaters.

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