Movie Review: The Sessions
October 24, 2012
Mark O’Brien was - and through his writings, still is - a powerful voice not only within the “disabled” community, but for humanity as a whole. Contracting polio at a very young age, O’Brien thereafter spent his entire life, but for a few hours each day living in an iron lung. None of his muscles worked. His body was contorted into unspeakable disfigurement and although “immobile”, unlike many who may suffer paraplegia or quadriplegia due to spinal cord and nerve injuries, O’Brien’s nerves still functioned. He could feel heat, cold, pain, the need to scratch, arousal and stimulus. But almost as if compensation for the lack of one ability, O’Brien’s mind went into overdrive.
Pushing himself to live life to its fullest, O’Brien was a prolific writer of poems and articles, many typed out one letter at a time by a straw that he held in his mouth. He graduated with a Bachelor’s degree from Berkeley and although unable to complete his studies before his death, was also enrolled in a Masters’ program at Berkeley. He started his own publishing house and became a champion for the disabled and their rights, prior to and in the early days of the ADA. His intelligence, sarcastic wit and determination to live a “normal” life bubbled forth making Mark O’Brien an unstoppable life force. Jessica Yu’s 1996 Oscar winning short film documentary , “Breathing Lessons: The Life and work of Mark O’Brien”, is a standard bearer and testament to the man and his life. But it is from that documentary that writer/director Ben Lewin now brings us THE SESSIONS.
At age 38, there was still one thing that Mark O’Brien hadn’t done that was crucial to him as a man - have sex. Having crossed every possible Rubicon in his life thus far, he determined to mount this hurdle as well. After doing some research, he hired clinical sex surrogate Cheryl Greene who then worked with O’Brien in multiple sessions, ultimately climaxing in O’Brien losing his virginity. Thereafter, O’Brien documented THE SESSIONS and the experience in the 1990 article “On Seeing A Sex Therapist”. One person dramatically touched and empowered by the article was writer/director Mark Lewin. Not only impacted by O’Brien’s work as a filmmaker and a man, Lewin connected with O’Brien thanks to his own battle with polio. Working closely with Cheryl Greene herself and Susan Fernbach, O’Brien’s partner the last few years of his life, Lewin now delivers THE SESSIONS - a tenderly understated, uplifting, yet brutally honest exploration of life, death and a man’s love story with life itself.
Following this one journey in O’Brien’s life, much of the story is told through narrative technique, primarily by the characters of O’Brien and Greene. We first meet Mark’s crotchety old caregiver whom he quickly fires in exchange for the beautiful, outgoing and nubile Amanda. If he’s going to be stuck in an iron lung he may as well have someone beautiful to look at. But Amanda is more than beautiful outside, her inner beauty touches something within him he has never felt before - love. Sadly, like most puppy loves, things don’t go quite as Mark planned and he frightens Amanda away after professing his love and devotion to her. Forced to hire yet another caregiver, he elects the very perfunctory, matter-of-fact and unglamourous Vera. But, as we are to learn, behind those horn-rimmed glasses of Vera’s lies the heart of a romantic and devoted friend.
Newly landing a writing assignment about sex and the disabled sets Mark’s wheels spinning and with Vera’s help, he begins his research into hiring a sex therapist. After all, Mark knows nothing about sex. He’s still a virgin. A Catholic by nature, Mark also seeks counsel and help from Father Brendan, his parish priest, a man who’s enthusiasm and support seeing O’Brien fulfill his dream and desire gives Mark a very collegial camaraderie and spirit while reasoning that “God will give you a pass on this one.” But then Mark meets Cheryl Greene and THE SESSIONS begin.
A licensed sex therapist, Cheryl is married with a teenager. Approaching her work with Mark as just that, work, she prescribes six sessions, each of which she meticulously and callously documents with a professionalism that belies the tenderness and gentleness that is unfolding with each moment she spends with Mark. And THE SESSIONS become as much about Mark’s journey as Cheryl’s.
Played exquisitely by John Hawkes and Helen Hunt, by film’s end we feel as if we know Mark O’Brien and Cheryl Greene. Emotions - and bodies - are laid bare. There is a palpable honesty that permeates the film that begins with Hawkes and Hunt. The physical nakedness is secondary to the emotional, slipping away into the background like a piece of the set design. Hunt mesmerizes with her eyes. Cheryl’s story and her journey is all told through Hunt’s eyes. No words. Just the emotions that shine forth. This is the performance of her career. I fully expect to hear her name announced come Oscar nomination morning. In describing her performance and Cheryl, Hunt reflects on their differences, “Aside from the obvious day to day she lives her life, she talks a little louder, is a little more direct, and is more extroverted than me. I wanted to take that and my life’s work and bring that to the movie. The truth in the material, the skill, that’s what makes it work.”
But then there’s John Hawkes. Immobilized and actually placed in a working iron lung provided by Rancho Los Amigos Rehabilitation Center here in Southern Californian, not only is Hawkes just in the iron lung, but he must also contort his body and does so in keeping with the images of Mark O’Brien himself in the “Breathing Lessons” documentary. Using a “torture ball”, his spine was contorted and wrapped so as to mold his body accordingly. Hawkes also paid particular attention to hand and finger placement. Also from that documentary, Hawkes was able to study O’Brien’s breathing and speech pattern to bring even more life to his performance while never turning into a mimicry or caricature. Perfectly capturing the cadence and self-deprecating sarcasm of O’Brien, there are times even I had to do a double take and remember this was not Mark O’Brien on the screen. “I wanted to bring a recognizable person to those who survive him, who knew him, so they will see something of their family member or friend in what I’d done”. Hawkes soars with truth and candor.
Bill Macy, Moon Bloodgood and Annika Marks are the glue that make THE SESSIONS a full-bodied experience. With their performances, each adds to the humanity of the story and more particularly, they are the forces which convey to the world that Mark O’Brien is not disabled. In all honesty, never once did I see Mark O’Brien as “disabled.” His wit, his courage, his sense of adventure and love of life makes him more able-bodied than 98% of us. Never once do the characters become maudlin or is pity infused into the performances.
A key to Macy’s performance as Father Brendan is that he is so charming and disarming. He sees himself while a messenger of god, still just a regular guy and Mark as a regular guy. The collegial spirit that insures between the two is beautiful - and often humorous. With wonderful wistful looks, Macy brings a boyish glee to the “coming of age” humor. Although there was never a specific “Father Brendan” in O’Brien’s life, director Lewin and Macy felt comfortable creating this composite of priests with whom O’Brien sought counsel in his life. For Macy, “You combine these two subjects - people with disabilities and sex - which freaks us out, and then let’s talk about it in a church.”
As Vera, Moon Bloodgood delivers one of the most emotionally powerful and sensitive performances of her career. Known best for her hardcore roles in “Daybreak”, “Falling Skies” and “Terminator: Salvation”, here she maintains a hard veneer, but then subtly allows it to crack as Vera, too, is won over by the charm of Mark O’Brien. A woman of very little words or emotion, Vera treats the disability with nonchalance, something at which Bloodgood excels while matching wit-for-wit with Hawkes’ O’Brien. “To pity would insult his [Mark’s] integrity. [Vera] deals with him like a human being. That dispels the need to handhold. . . It’s authentic.” A very delicate balancing act that is also aided by her spot-on physical performance as a caregiver. Similarly, Annika Marks brings a jubilant freshness to the film as Amanda making it easy to see how this woman first touched Mark’s heart. To their credit, both Bloodgood and Marks have personal experience with friends or family whom have some sort of physical disability, giving them added insight into navigating the truth and reality of the healing waters of normalcy.
Making her acting debut is Jennifer Kumiyama. A standout, in real life Kumiyama is disabled with AMC and wheelchair bound. Here, as Carmen, a young woman who opens her lovely home to Mark and Cheryl for THE SESSIONS, her joy, enthusiasm and energy are boundless. She is a shining light.
Written and directed by Ben Lewin, a surprising aspect of the story is the strength of the women that surround and influence Mark O’Brien which each woman written as strong as the next. For Lewin, “It was important to me that this wasn’t going to be a movie just about a horizontal guy. It was about Mark O’Brien and the universe around him and the people he connected with.” Also important was Lewin’s own life experience as polio survivor. “[T]his was definitely not going to be a bleeding heart movie. When we first spoke to Susan Fernbach, Mark’s girlfriend in the years before he died, she said that she didn’t want this to be a movie that ended up in ‘cripple corner.’ There was this cringe factor we would need to overcome. The worst thing we could do was take cheap, sentimental shots. It just wasn’t necessary. The elements of the story were smart and so unusual - inherently dramatic.”
Some may question Lewin as to why he cast an able-bodied John Hawkes as opposed to one of the many disabled actors in the acting community. His reasoning is sound. “I cast the best person.”
Relying heavily on the narrative voicing, Lewin guides us along the journey but then allows us to open the doors of each character and the emotional gravitas each presents. Going beyond the basic premise, Lewin touches on aspects of life that resonate within each of us from sex to the afterlife, all done with an organic flow of daily conversation and events. There is never anything that feels forced or manipulative. Shooting the sex scenes chronologically also allows the film to “uniquely and arrestingly capture things happening for the first time.”
Given the use of the dual narrative of Mark and Cheryl, editing is a make it break it part of THE SESSIONS and Lewin gives full credit to his female editor, Lisa Bromwell. “I was clever enough to work with a female editor. There was a real yin and yang thing going on in the cutting room. We were not consciously looking for a particular note. . .the film’s emotional temperature moved on its sense of humor, but at the same time we shouldn’t be straining to tell a joke. I used as a guideline the things I didn’t like in movies.” Of great concern were the sex scenes between Hunt and Hawkes. “ I don’t like all the fake sex scenes when people roll in bed. Who rolls in bed!?! Somehow, that was a great guideline – think of all the movies you hated and don’t do it like that.”
THE SESSIONS. A love story between a man and life itself. A story that should humble, challenge and inspire us all. A film that could very well be dripping in gold come Oscar time.
Mark O’Brien - John Hawkes
Cheryl Greene - Helen Hunt
Father Brendan - William H. Macy
Vera - Moon Bloodgood
Amanda - Annika Marks
Written and Directed by Ben Lewin.