I hadn’t heard of Mark O’Brien before I saw The Sessions. I only knew that the film starred John Hawkes (of Deadwood, Winter’s Bone, and Martha Marcy May Marlene fame) and Helen Hunt, who I’ve always admired because of her role as the rebellious, dance-obsessed Lynne Stone in the 1985 film Girls Just Want to Have Fun. I was seven years old when I saw that shit, and I’d now consider it one of my first introductions to (somewhat problematic) pop culture feminism. I refuse to let go of it. Also, Helen Hunt was in Twister, a movie about storm chasers who say stuff like, “It’s coming! It’s headed right for us!” and “Debris! We got debris!” Oh yeah, and she won that Best Actress Oscar for As Good As It Gets in 1997.
What I’m trying to say is: Helen Hunt is awesome.
Her latest Sundance Film Festival hit is based on an essay Mark O’Brien wrote for The Sun called, “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate,” which chronicles his experience losing his virginity in his late thirties. Hunt plays Cheryl Cohen Greene, the sex surrogate, and Hawkes plays O’Brien, a man who contracted polio at the age of six and became paralyzed except for limited use of muscles in his right foot, neck, and jaw. He couldn’t spend more than a few hours outside of an iron lung (a metal chamber that forces the lungs to inhale and exhale) and, despite that fact, went on to earn a graduate degree in journalism from UC Berkeley—by traveling back and forth between the university and the iron lung at home. With the ability to move only his head, he wrote articles and poems by holding a stick in his mouth and tapping out letters on a computer.
The audience learns all this within the first ten minutes of the film, and that’s about the time I started telling myself to stop going through life like a lazy fuck.
That’s some pretty intense subject matter … not me being a lazy fuck—that’s for my therapist and me to work out SOMEDAY—but the serious exploration of a disabled man’s sexuality. While the focus remains on O’Brien throughout, The Sessions also gives us several comedic moments with other physically disabled characters as O’Brien interviews them for an article he’s writing about the sex lives of the disabled. I can’t tell you how refreshing it was to see an on-screen depiction of people with disabilities who do things like omg have sex and who also enjoy talking candidly and unapologetically about having sex. O’Brien’s reactions are hilarious; he gets fairly embarrassed and weirded out during the interviews, but the stories he hears ultimately empower him to think seriously about his own sex life, or lack thereof.
Enter the inimitable William H. Macy (yes!). He plays O’Brien’s priest, Father Brendan, who listens to O’Brien’s confessions every day while guiding him through the guilt he feels about seeking out a sex surrogate. That relationship soon evolves (once O’Brien begins spending time with the surrogate) into more of a friendship, and it’s wonderful to see those lines blurred; watching Macy go from praying with O’Brien in church for the first half of the film to showing up in sweats with a six-pack at O’Brien’s house in the later half got the whole theater cracking up. That friendship grounds the film and keeps it from veering into sentimental territory; the audience looks forward to their light-hearted conversations about some truly heavy subject matter. At the same time, their friendship adds emotional depth to the characters. We realize it isn’t just O’Brien’s physical disability that complicates his sexual exploration, but his Catholic faith as well. These two immensely likeable men clearly like each other—and their pontifications about the role of religion in their lives, and what God will and won’t forgive—keeps this from turning into yet another film about a dude just trying to get laid.
Before seeing the movie, I hadn’t heard about sex surrogates. The real Ms. Greene (who still practices at the age of 68) describes the difference between her profession and prostitution as follows:
If you go to a prostitute, it’s like going to a restaurant. You read the menu, you choose what you want, they prepare, they hope that you love it, and hopefully you want to come back.
With a surrogate, it’s like going to cooking school. You get the ingredients, you learn to make a meal together—and then the point is to go out into the world and share that and not come back.