When Ben Lewin decided to make a film about a disabled man experiencing sex for the first time, he was careful to portray intimacy both frankly and affectionately.
Most love scenes are boring. A man and a woman kiss before they undress, and then the camera cuts away to them smoking in bed. Few movies depict the potential for physical awkwardness, and precisely how the bodies fit.
But the sex scenes in The Sessions, the new drama starring John Hawkes and Helen Hunt, aren't like that. From foreplay to orgasm, director Ben Lewin's camera never flinches from his characters during intimate moments. The film, which won the Audience Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival and a host of rave reviews, is, as New York magazine's David Edelstein put it, "a sexual coming-of-age movie"—one in which any audience member can recognize their own carnal hang-ups and triumphs. What's more extraordinary, though, is that it accomplishes that while telling a true-life tale of an extreme circumstance: a paralyzed man losing his virginity.
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How does Lewin, who has the same disability as the subject of his film, manage to make this very-specific material deeply universal? By working to make his protagonist come across as a real, fleshed-out person. His disabled man worries about and obsesses over sex in the same way we all do. His body frustrates him, and his feelings are familiar to anyone who's ever found what they mentally desire to be physically unattainable. "Clinical accuracy is not the message of the movie," Lewin told me. "I was taken by this man's desire for independence, for a physical and emotional connection."
Mark O'Brien had a severe case of polio. He could not move from the neck down and spent most of his time in an iron lung, relying on personal care workers and manipulating small objects with a stick that he kept in his mouth. But O'Brien remained productive: Before his death in 1999, he wrote newspaper articles and several volumes of poetry. One of these articles, "On Seeing a Sex Surrogate," is the basis for Lewin's script about O'Brien's relationship with Cheryl Greene, the professional sex surrogate who eventually took his virginity.
Hawkes plays O'Brien as a smart, funny man whose disability does not define him. His physical limitations are obstacles, not barriers. There are challenges, however, when an able-bodied man portrays a disabled one, especially when the disabled person was four-foot-six and weighed only 60 pounds. Hawkes took his cues from Breathing Lessons, the Academy Award-winning documentary about O'Brien that you can view here, and from the screenplay itself. "When the script includes lines like, 'Because of your curved spine, certain types of intercourse may not be possible,' I can't disregard them," Hawkes said in an interview. "They're clues, and I need to respect them." In order to replicate O'Brien's frame, Hawkes acted while a cushion contorted his back. He even spent hours practicing with a "mouth-stick," a simple tool O'Brien used to dial the phone and turn pages. "I got to be pretty good at it," he said.
Rather than shoot scenes in non-chronological order, which is typical of most production, Lewin decided to film the sex sessions from first to last. As a result, the relationship between the actors and their characters ran parallel: Their initial contact is awkward, and they develop physical and emotional familiarity over time. "There was this spontaneity," Lewin explained. "The first time [Helen Hunt] attempts to undress [John] is when we were shooting it. I ended up using almost every foot of that material." The actors preserved this spontaneity by intentionally avoiding each other. "We made no attempt to even be friendly," Hawkes said. So chemistry between the two grows on screen in an honest, organic way.