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104 of 112 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "But the truth is, we're just human.", December 25, 2012
This review is from: The Sessions (DVD)
The Sessions is an extraordinary little indie film based on an even more extraordinary true story. In 1988, Mark O'Brien, a thirty-eight year old poet, journalist and advocate for the disabled living in Berkeley, California, decided to lose his virginity. This may not sound very extraordinary unless you know that O'Brien, severely afflicted by polio as a child, had spent most of his life in an iron lung and was unable to move any part of his body below the neck.

O'Brien's decision was prompted as a result of research he was doing for an article on the sex lives of disabled people. After interviewing a number of disabled people, and seeing how many of them were in fact enjoying an active and rewarding sex life in spite of their disabilities, O'Brien began to consider his own sex life, or rather, his complete lack of one, and how he might go about changing that. The issue was further complicated for O'Brien by the fact that he was a devout Catholic and what he was contemplating - sex outside of marriage - was a moral issue as well as a physical one. So in addition to consulting a sex therapist for help with his physical challenges, he also consulted with his local priest for what was for him a moral challenge as well.

It is important to understand the exact nature of O'Brien's situation. He was not paralyzed, at least not neurologically. Polio afflicts the muscles, leaving them weak and atrophied, but not the nerves, and so although he couldn't move, O'Brien could still feel and his 'equipment' still worked, albeit in moments that were more embarrassing than anything that could be considered pleasurable, given that the only people ever touching him or seeing him naked were doctors, nurses and attendants. And he could survive outside of the iron lung for a few hours at a time, though he had to be kept on a gurney which let him lie prone. But this made it possible for him to do things like attend university where he ultimately earned his degrees in English and journalism (and later to have his sessions with the sex therapist). Ultimately though he always had to be put back into the iron lung as his own lungs were only strong enough to function on their own for those few hours.

The story of O'Brien's quest for non-virginity is brought vividly to life in first-class performances carried out by a marvelous cast. John Hawkes (best known for his Oscar-nominated supporting performance in 2010's Winter's Bone) does an outstanding job as Mark O'Brien, rising to the challenge not only of portraying a man solely through the use of his head and face but also finding O'Brien's voice, bringing out his combination of intelligence and humor along with his anxieties and vulnerabilities, both physical and emotional. Helen Hunt (best known for her Oscar-winning performance in 1997's As Good As It Gets) is equally outstanding as Cheryl Cohen Greene, the sex therapist who works with O'Brien to help him achieve his goal of becoming a fully realized sexual person, bringing out Greene's own struggle between her commitment to always maintaining a professional distance with her clients and her inability to not be moved by O'Brien's mix of raw vulnerability and nervous courage. And his ability to find humor in spite of his situation. "I have to believe in God," O'Brien says at one point. "I would find it absolutely intolerable not to be able to blame someone for all this."

The supporting cast is also quite excellent. William H. Macy does a nice turn as Father Brendan, the priest O'Brien turns to for guidance with his dilemma. In what could easily have been a mere comic cliché role, Macy instead delivers a nuanced performance as a man who seriously weighs the church's position against the sheer humanity of the situation he's been presented with and then goes with his basic humanity, telling O'Brien "I have a feeling that God is going to give you a free pass on this one. Go for it." Macy does bring a gentle humor to the situation, showing Brendan's awkward discomfort at advising someone with such an unusual problem, but gives it a solid grounding by showing Brendan's commitment to giving the best spiritual guidance he can, even if he does feel completely out of his depth. Moon Bloodgood delivers a quietly funny performance as Vera, the supportive attendant who accompanies O'Brien on his interviews for his article and to his sessions with Greene, doing her best to be stoically professional even as her highly expressive face reveals her inner reactions to the things she sees and hears in the course of her duties. And Jennifer Kumiyama is quite engaging as Carmen, a wheelchair-bound woman with Arthrogryposis who's cheerfully chatty about her sex life when O'Brien interviews her for his article and who ends up letting O'Brien and Greene use her apartment for their initial sessions.

As both director and screenwriter, Ben Lewin brings a special insight and sensitivity to the film, being someone who was afflicted with polio himself as a child and who must use arm braces to move about. In addition to drawing on his own experiences while writing the screenplay, Lewin worked closely with Susan Fernback, O'Brien's partner of several years, and with Greene, wanting the script to be as faithful to O'Brien the man as humanly possible. The music score by Marco Beltrami is appropriately subtle, present in the background and discretely adding to the tone or feel of a scene but never threatening to distract from or overwhelm what's happening on the screen. In some movies the director depends on the score to tell you what you're supposed to be feeling, but The Sessions has no such need.

But it's Hawkes and Hunt who carry the heart of the movie and they do it marvelously well. Hawkes' challenge is first to portray O'Brien's extreme limitations and vulnerability, and then, having done that, to get you to see beyond those things to the man O'Brien really was. Not without some cost though. One of the things Hawkes did was to lie on a soccer ball-sized foam rubber sphere during filming to simulate O'Brien's curvature of the spine. However effective the results were visually, the constant pressure against Hawkes' spine resulted in him developing back problems. Hunt's challenge was similar in that her role required her to spend a lot of her screen time naked, playing a woman who was both comfortable and professional at being naked and in a sexual situation with her clients, and then to slowly reveal Greene's growing discomfort with the fact that in spite of her professionalism she cannot be completely dispassionate about O'Brien, that there is something about him that is connecting with her and making her feel for him. It's a tribute to the chemistry that develops between these two fine actors that the sexual aspect of their situation ultimately becomes secondary to the emotional and human connection that's being made.

In 1997, O'Brien was the subject of a short film by Jessica Yu, Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O'Brien, which went on to win the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject. In it, he makes the statement "The two mythologies about disabled people break down to: one, we can't do anything, or two, we can do everything. But the truth is, we're just human." That, more than anything else, sums up what The Sessions is all about.

Highly, highly recommended.
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