Film Appreciation: The Sessions

Film Appreciation: The Sessions

When Fox Searchlight Pictures released The Sessions in 2012, the studio went with taglines like “The festival hit of the year!” and “Based on the triumphant true story”. It is not hard to see why the studio took a low-key approach. The film’s story, how disabled writer Mark O’Brien hires a sex surrogate to help him lose his virginity, requires careful handling. In the wrong hands, this narrative could be exploitative or, on the other end of the spectrum, preachy.

Thankfully, it is neither. The Sessions is a frank film, but it raises vital issues about the disabled. Berkeley as depicted in this film may seem a little congenial for credibility, but O’Brien’s challenges come off as all too real. The film pulls off a very difficult feat-it manages to be funny and touching without ever being inappropriate.

A big part of this is due to the film’s driving force, Ben Lewin. Lewin, a polio survivor, originally planned to create a semi-autobiographical sitcom about sex and the disabled. While researching online, he found O’Brien’s 1990 article, “On Seeing A Sex Surrogate”. Lewin said, “I felt that if I could do on film what he had done to me with his writing, then I could potentially deliver something powerful.” [1]

Susan Fernbach, O’Brien’s girlfriend during his last years, and Cheryl Cohen Greene, O’Brien’s surrogate, gave input to Lewin while he wrote the script. Both continued to assist the filmmakers throughout production.

This is actually the second time O’Brien’s life had been chronicled on film. The first, Jessica Yu’s 1996 short film Breathing Lessons, won an Oscar for Best Documentary Short. Breathing Lessons is more an in-depth portrait of O’Brien, describing his family and early life. It gives a wrenching account of the day he contracted polio, followed by stories of his fight to have as normal a life as possible. This includes completing college, living in his own apartment (albeit in an iron lung), and hiring a sex surrogate to teach him the skills for a physical relationship with a woman. Yu quotes O’Brien’s poetry throughout, and the effect is quite powerful.

The Sessions provides many of the same details, and even quotes some of the same poems, but uses a different timeline. Its focus is the origin and progression of O’Brien’s relationship with Greene.

O’Brien mentions a priest briefly in his writings about seeing a surrogate. Lewin expands this considerably to create William H. Macy’s character of Father Brendan. To a large extent, Father Brendan functions as O’Brien’s private Greek chorus and the voice from the audience.

Father Brendan is also O’Brien’s straight man in more than one scene. Since they cannot fit a gurney into a confessional booth, Father Brendan has to hear O’Brien’s descriptions of his sexual awakenings in the sanctuary. This causes problems when people in the church overhear (or eavesdrop during) O’Brien’s sessions. Eventually, Father Brendan takes to coming to O’Brien’s home to hear confession.

Much of the film’s humor occurs with the exchanges between O’Brien and Father Brendan (who becomes far more interested in those confessions than he would like to let on). There are also some very funny scenes where O’Brien talks with other disabled people about their sex lives. In one, a woman mentions a sex position; it is clear from O’Brien’s reaction that he has little or no idea what she is talking about.

Inevitably, O’Brien falls hard for Greene when their sessions result in the loss of his virginity. The film indicates that she develops feelings for him as well. She is happily married and, therefore, unable to reciprocate. It remains for him to navigate the final test of manhood- agreeing to let a woman go, even though he cares for her.

John Hawkes gives an extraordinary performance as O’Brien. A great deal of Hawkes’ performance depends on his face and voice; he does an uncanny job of evoking O’Brien’s voice. For scenes when his character is out of his iron lung, Hawkes replicates O’Brien’s posture by placing a large foam ball under his back. He also learned to use a “mouth-stick” for the scenes where O’Brien writes and dials the phone.

None of this would matter if Hawkes’ performance consisted of replicating the superficial aspects of O’Brien. He creates a three-dimensional character-intelligent, frustrated by his limitations, and determined to have as complete an experience as possible.

Helen Hunt is equally impressive as Greene. Her role is demanding in a different sense; she must hint at feelings rather than project them. To prepare for the role, Hunt worked with Greene extensively. At one point, Greene even read the script so that Hunt could get a better grasp of her accent.

Greene has said that she and O’Brien “fell in like”- that the romantic angle in the film is not accurate. She and O’Brien did remain friends after their sessions ended, however.

Macy gives a strong performance as Father Brendan. There is also good work from Moon Bloodgood as O’Brien’s matter-of-fact aide Vera.

Geoffrey Simpson’s cinematography does an extremely good job of evoking O’Brien’s world. Editing by Lisa Bramwell is particularly effective during the sessions scenes.

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[1] Schoenbrun, Dan (January 26, 2012). “Five Questions with “The Surrogate” Director Ben Lewin”Filmmaker. Retrieved January 29, 2012.


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