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.
And as Hawkes put it, "for once, the nudity in this film is necessary to the plot." The direct, almost sudden removal of Greene's clothing is jarring, but it's needed so that the therapy with O'Brien may continue. It's his body, not hers, that needs the work. As Film.com's Stephanie Zacharek notes, "It's not every day you see bold full-frontal middle-aged female nudity treated so matter-of-factly, and at the same time—almost paradoxically—made to seem so mysteriously powerful."
O'Brien was a funny, self-deprecating man—at one point, he deadpans, "I haven't seen my penis in over thirty years"—and he used humor to make able-bodied people more comfortable around him. That's important, said Hawkes: "It's in our nature to be afraid of what we're not, and people with disabilities remind us of our frailty." And the film doesn't shy away from portraying O'Brien cursing people out when frustrated or in pain. "I want [O'Brien] to neither be a victim or saint, which is often how [the disabled] are portrayed in film," Hawkes said. "[They] can be assholes, too."
In a terrific supporting performance, William H. Macy plays Father Brendan, a priest who listens to O'Brien's confession. O'Brien tells the priest how much he craves sex, and asks whether a just God would let him lose his virginity. Crucially, Father Brendan engages with O'Brien at a human level, not a religious one, concluding that, yes, God would choose mercy over dogma. Their dialogue is ironic and rather warm-hearted. Church affiliation aside, the priest character is gives the audience a powerful, unexpected entry point. He initially listens to Mark because he must, and later he comes to genuinely care for him, as do we.
Roger Ebert, a critic who is no stranger to disability—salivary cancer took away his ability to speak—has pointed out that The Sessions's engagement with practical concerns makes it unique. "The film pays close attention to the physical details involved with both the Hawkes and Hunt characters," he wrote on his blog. "Questions we may often have asked ourselves are fully, humanely, answered here." Like many couples (for lack of a better word) who are first discovering each other's bodies, O'Brien and Greene rely on patient experimentation and trust.
At some point or another, sex is awkward for everyone. There are times when the physical connection simply isn't happening, and it's better to stop than to continue. These moments can be funny, but often times they're embarrassing. The Sessions is a highly specific look at that tension, but specificity is what gives the film its populist, sex-positive message. "My mom is in her 80s—she'd want me to say she's in her early 80s—and I'm sure she'd be fine with this film," Hawkes said. "We've all got bodies—most of us are lucky enough to have sex."