Sunday, November 23, 2014

‘The Sessions': The power of love

Having progressed through the early stages of gentle physical contact, Cheryl (Helen Hunt) decides that Mark (John Hawkes) is ready for the next step. But Mark is terrified, remembering too many humiliations resulting from his frail, polio-disfigured body.

From page A11 | November 16, 2012 |

By Derrick Bang

Enterprise film critic

“The Sessions”

Five stars

Starring: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy, Moon Bloodgood, Adam Arkin, Annika Marks, Rhea Perlman

Rating: R, for strong sexuality, graphic nudity and sexual candor

Berkeley-based poet, author and journalist Mark O’Brien died in 1999, just shy of his 50th birthday. His collections of poetry included “Love and Baseball” and “Breathing,” and he wrote essays, book reviews and features for the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner, the National Catholic Reporter and numerous other outlets.

Most notably, O’Brien was an inspirational figure in the blossoming late-20th century movement to encourage disabled people to lead independent lives. He contracted polio at the age of 6; the disease left him paralyzed from the neck down, and able to control only three muscles: one in his right foot, one in his neck and one in his jaw. He spent most of his adult life in an iron lung, able to “escape” only for brief intervals.

He initially dictated his works to attendants, then typed them with a mouth stick.

Born in Boston and raised in Sacramento, O’Brien moved to Berkeley in 1978, when he was accepted as a freshman at UC Berkeley. He graduated in 1982, then — after initially being turned down — was admitted to Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. By then, he was a familiar fixture in Berkeley, charging about the streets in a Stanford-built electric gurney that he controlled — badly — with his left foot. Because of the way his spine had been curved by polio, he never was able to sit up in a conventional wheelchair.

Writer/director Ben Lewin’s remarkable film, “The Sessions,” opens with some vintage KPIX Channel 5 “Eyewitness News” footage of O’Brien, as he navigates city streets and the UC Berkeley campus. The editing is coy; we’re never quite able to see O’Brien’s face, and as a result there’s no disconnect when this dramatized story opens in his apartment, as a cat enters an open window one bright, sunny morning and uses its tail to tickle Mark’s face into wakefulness, his body cocooned by the iron lung.

Of course, Mark can’t scratch the resulting itch. The moment is both mildly tragic and unexpectedly amusing, the latter in great part because of the passion actor John Hawkes puts into Mark’s effort to “will” the itch away.

Hawkes’ bravura performance is but one of this film’s many miracles. Another is the frequent application of humor: so carefully, perfectly modulated by Lewin. Polio, iron lungs and a wasted body aren’t humorous, and being encouraged to laugh at Mark would be reprehensible. But that never happens; Mark’s savvy, self-deprecating observations are wry, revealing and almost frighteningly intimate.

“The Sessions” is based on an article — “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate” — that O’Brien wrote for the May 1990 issue of The Sun of North Carolina. It’s readily available online, and you’ll no doubt be motivated to seek it out … but do watch this film first. Better, then, to marvel at the skill with which Lewin has adapted the material, and remained artistically and (mostly) factually faithful to O’Brien’s disarmingly candid analysis and description of his sexual hang-ups and physical limitations.

Catholicism was an important part of Mark’s life, and his frightened decision to lose his virginity — which is where Lewin’s film opens — necessitates often embarrassing conversations with a local priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy). These intimate chats — taking place in the aisle, since Mark can’t maneuver into a confessional — are another of this film’s miracles: precisely modulated, breathtakingly honest (and fascinating!) efforts by one frightened man to reach out to somebody who could have judged him mercilessly, but instead becomes a friend.

Macy, his long, shaggy hair reflecting the 1980s Berkeley setting, is marvelous in this role (a part expanded from the “Father Mike” mentioned in O’Brien’s article). Although professing to have “heard it all,” Father Brendan clearly is operating outside his comfort zone; we see the agonized indecision in Macy’s face, even as Mark cannot.

There comes a point when Father Brendan becomes more a friend, less a priest; it’s hard to isolate the moment, but we eventually recognize the transition. And we cannot help but smile when Macy sighs, glances about his church and falls back on Jesus’ kindness and mercy, rather than strict Catholic views of sex outside marriage.

Mark finds his way to a sex surrogate — these days, labeled a surrogate partner — in the form of Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt), a comfortably married woman with a teenage son and tolerant husband (Adam Arkin). She walks and talks like a therapist, until the first session progresses to the removal of clothing.

What follows next is breathtaking: not in the sense of being something magnificent, but rather because of the levels of anxiety and invasive intimacy Lewin builds into the scene, as conveyed fearlessly by Hawkes and Hunt. This delicate encounter has all the informal authenticity that Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones, despite their considerable acting chops, were unable to bring to “Hope Springs.”

Hawkes will be remembered for his two recent psycho roles, in “Winter’s Bone” and “Martha Marcy May Marlene”; the former brought him a well-deserved Academy Award nomination. He’s not a showy actor, but he nonetheless burrows deeply into a character and allows identifiable traits to seep out, like perspiration on a hot day. His Uncle Teardrop, in “Winter’s Bone,” was seriously scary; his take on O’Brien, here, is credibly vulnerable, anxiety-laden and disarmingly candid. We can’t help but adore him.

Hunt bares everything here, body and soul, leaving utterly nothing to the imagination; in a very real sense, we experience the same compassionate frankness that Cheryl grants Mark.

It’s the most precious and valuable gift that she could bestow, because Mark has spent his entire life in a heightened state of humiliated sexual repression. As he himself wrote, in the Sun article, “Sexuality seemed to be utterly without purpose in my life, except to mortify me when I became aroused during bed baths.”

Yes, Lewin’s approach is unflinchingly frank. Prudes are advised to steer clear, and — rest assured — this absolutely isn’t a film for children.

Lewin lifts many incidents and even interior monologues from the Sun article, and from Mark’s poetry, allowing us — as often as possible — the benefit of his innermost thoughts. No doubt this comes from Lewin’s own experience; he is, himself, a polio survivor. Seeking as much authenticity as possible, Lewin worked closely with the actual Cheryl Cohen Greene, and also with Susan Fernbach, whom we meet late in this film.

This actually is the second film about O’Brien; he also was the subject of Jessica Yu’s Academy Award-winning 1997 documentary, “Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien.” Yu’s film also can be found online, and you’ll want to watch it.

Films like “The Sessions” require handling as delicate as that afforded Mark by Cheryl; getting warm bodies into the theater is the battle, because you can’t help being entranced once Mark’s story begins. This is a powerful, special and richly memorable experience … and the sort of film we’ll simply never see from a conventional Hollywood studio.

Thank God for indies, and for the faith of this entire production crew, which made this film for — better sit down — an amazingly modest $1 million.

We need more like it.

— Read more of Derrick Bang’s film criticism at Comment on this review at





Hollywood readies its big guns for the holidays

By Derrick Bang | From Page: A1 | Gallery

Need for local foster parents grows

By Anne Ternus-Bellamy | From Page: A1

Tactical robot decreases officer risks

By Lauren Keene | From Page: A1 | Gallery

Couple arrested on drug, firearm possession charges

By Lauren Keene | From Page: A2

Woman confronts suspicious follower

By Lauren Keene | From Page: A2

Bob Dunning: Signs, signs, everywhere a sign

By Bob Dunning | From Page: A2

For the record

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A2

Berkeley, Santa Cruz students protest fee hikes

By The Associated Press | From Page: A2

Auction-bound student artwork stolen in downtown heist

By Lauren Keene | From Page: A3, 1 Comment | Gallery

UCD awarded $100M to lead program to predict, prevent pandemic threats

By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A3

Breakfast with Santa tickets are going fast

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A3

Free boot camp, yoga fundraiser this week

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4

Enterprise observes holiday hours

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4

Bell-ringers still needed this holiday season

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4

Give blood and get a free movie ticket

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4

Thanksgiving feast is open to all

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4

Workshop will answer financial aid questions

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4

Probationers, parolees graduate from Yolo transitional program

By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A4 | Gallery

Round up at the registers for Davis schools

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A5

Yolo Food Bank invites locals to run with the flock

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A5

Museum announces holiday schedule

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A5

At the Pond: Stop, look and listen

By Jean Jackman | From Page: A5 | Gallery

Project Linus seeks donations

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A6

Swing your partner!

By Wayne Tilcock | From Page: A6

Fairfield School enjoys a festive feast

By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A7 | Gallery

Right at home: gifts you can use and use up

By The Associated Press | From Page: A8

Dec. 10 jeans drive benefits STEAC

By Anne Ternus-Bellamy | From Page: A9

Davis Community Church history recounted in Sunday talk

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A10 | Gallery

Open your heart

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A11

Bob Hope interview pulled from ‘the vault’

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A12



There’s only one way to fix this

By Creators Syndicate | From Page: B5

Students barking up the wrong tree

By Our View | From Page: A14

Rick McKee cartoon

By Debbie Davis | From Page: A14

Heartbroken over treatment of teacher

By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A14, 1 Comment

Google, tell me. Is my son a genius?

By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A14

Daryl Cagle cartoon

By Debbie Davis | From Page: A15

Cordial political discourse: Seven years later, the thoughts resonate

By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A15

Easing the stress during college application season

By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A15

When the computer stares back

By Creators Syndicate | From Page: A16

How I want to be remembered

By Marion Franck | From Page: A16

Watch out for holiday weight gain

By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A16



Aggie men finish off Furman

By Enterprise staff | From Page: B1

Upset-minded Lions bounce UCD from WWPA tourney

By Enterprise staff | From Page: B1

New, old-look helmets not enough to lift UCD footballers

By Bruce Gallaudet | From Page: B1 | Gallery

Late shot sinks Aggie women

By Spencer Ault | From Page: B1 | Gallery

Turnovers costly as UC Davis loses Classic, 41-30

By Bruce Gallaudet | From Page: B1 | Gallery

UCD roundup: Seniors play well in Aggie volleyball loss

By Enterprise staff | From Page: B3 | Gallery

Wire briefs: Kings get past depleted T-Wolves

By The Associated Press | From Page: B6

With volleyball playoff berth, DHS accomplished its 2014 goal

By Evan Ream | From Page: B6 | Gallery







Don’t pass up the parking gift downtown

By Wendy Weitzel | From Page: A13

Doby Fleeman: Give thanks for our innovation culture

By Doby Fleeman | From Page: A20

Honey, spreads showcased at open house

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A20





Comics: Sunday, November 23, 2014

By Creator | From Page: B8