By Derrick Bang
Enterprise film critic
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
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 derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this review at www.davisenterprise.com