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Film Review

The Sessions

It's rare to find any film, much less an American production, dealing with such a difficult topic as sex for the disabled, portrayed in such a sensitive, understated way. Mark O'Brien, a Berkeley poet and writer, had polio as a child, a particularly cruel disease, leaving his arms and legs paralyzed, yet still with feeling throughout his body, and a sharp inquisitive mind. His parents cared for him at home, which allowed him to live far longer than similar victims, who were usually institutionalized. He began to live on his own, with an attendant during the daytime, but on his own at night. O'Brien had to spend most of his hours in an iron lung, but could be outside for brief periods (several hours) with the help of a portable respirator. He was able to hold a pencil in his mouth to type into a computer and write. He attended class at UC Berkeley using a motorized gurney and graduated in 1989. O'Brien became a poet and wrote accounts of being disabled, including an article on seeing a sex therapist. At the age of 38, he had decided that he wanted to experience sexual intercourse with a woman. Ben Lewin, the director and screenwriter, read the article, and realized that there was a strong story here. It was clear that Mark's determination to experience life even though outside most normal human contact, was intense, and probably helped keep him alive. This had particular resonance because Lewin, a Polish born child of Holocaust survivors, himself had polio as a child, and although not totally paralyzed, has to use crutches.

In "The Sessions", O'Brien, played by Ethan Hawke, develops a crush on one of his student attendants, and decides he wants to experience sex. But he is a believing Catholic (with a picture of the Virgin Mary in his room) and talks to his parish priest, Father Brendan, played by William Macy. Father Brendan is initially taken aback, but sees the greater good, and tells him that God would understand: "Go for it". Mark locates Cheryl, a sex therapist who is also a sex surrogate, played by Helen Hunt. At this point, most of the film depicts Cheryl's therapy sessions with Mark. She begins by explaining the difference between a sex surrogate and a prostitute, including that she strictly limits the number of sessions; six. Mark is nervous, to say the least, and this provides some humor as Cheryl deals with his anxieties. He has memorized an anatomy text, and keeps seeing intercourse in cross section views. Cheryl matter of factly strips in front of Mark, all the while describing to him what she intends to do, and insists that he not avert his eyes, and to look directly at her. The first session is less than a success, ending prematurely. Mark is embarrassed but Cheryl handles it well. Their sessions continue, and Cheryl, a married woman, begins to develop a real fondness for him.

Sometimes you see a film and immediately realize the importance of the casting director, and "The Sessions" is one of those films. Hawke and Hunt are both wonderful in performances that will surely get Oscar nominations. Both are daring, but in different ways. It is hard to imagine that we are looking at the same actor who played the ominous meth addicted brother in "Winter's Bone". William Macy is good but overshadowed by Hawke and Hunt. Cinematography is accomplished, especially in the many closeups. This is an explicit film with nudity and clinical words for sex and genitalia, but these always seem natural and appropriate. Here sex is shown as a normal desire and expression of the human condition. Lewin has made a sensitive yet powerful film, with enormous honesty and humanity. And leavened by wry humor. I loved this memorable film and urge you to see it on the big screen. Its 95 minutes go by in a flash. Just opened at the Embarcadero and the Kabuki.

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