Monday Reviews: The Sessions

the-sessions-1Every Monday, The CSPH takes a look at a book or film focusing on an aspect of sexuality. This week we are looking at The Sessions, directed by Ben Lewin, and starring John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, and William H. Macy.
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The film is based on an autobiographical essay entitled, “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate”, which appeared in Sun magazine in 1990 and was written by Mark O’Brien, a journalist, poet, and advocate for the disabled. Paralyzed by a severe case of childhood polio, O’Brien spent most of his life confined to an iron lung. Despite his extreme physical restrictions, O’Brien received a degree from the University of California at Berkeley and was admitted to the Graduate School of Journalism. He authored several volumes of poetry, an autobiography entitled How I Became a Human Being: A Disabled Man’s Quest for Independence (2003), and opened his own publishing company. In 1996, a documentary was made about O’Brien entitled, “Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien” and it won an Academy Award. Unfortunately, O’Brien passed away in 1999 due to complications from bronchitis.
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In “The Sessions,” O’Brien’s lesser-known story of sexual discovery is told through the perspective of its extremely funny and inspiring author. We get a glimpse into O’Brien’s daily life and the sense that “something is missing” in the expressions on O’Brien’s face (played by Hawkes). Striking up an intimate friendship with a Catholic priest, “Father Brendan” (played by Macy), O’Brien begins to confide in him how much he longs for sexual intimacy and requited love. Father Brendan connects O’Brien to a sex therapist who contacts “Cheryl” (played by Hunt), a sexual surrogate. The first meeting between Cheryl and O’Brien is laced with awkwardness and anxiety as Cheryl asks O’Brien about his condition and his history and begins doing some “body work” exercises, which result in some embarrassment for O’Brien regarding his performance. Cheryl sets boundaries and they agree on the goal of having penetrative intercourse by the end of their work together.
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While “The Sessions” offers a touching and enjoyable depiction of O’Brien’s desire for and experience of sexual intimacy at 38, it is worth mentioning that many elements of the film are different that what O’Brien published in his original article. In the film, the scenes with O’Brien and Cheryl are intimate and lighthearted as they both start to develop loving feelings for each other; however, in O’Brien’s original article, neither does he fall in love with Cheryl, nor does he meet a pretty hospital worker and live “happily ever after.” O’Brien’s written record of his experiences voice disappointment over the act of intercourse and he speaks more about his complex feelings of sex and love than is shown in the film.In real life, O’Brien received guidance and support from his therapist during this process, an element that is left out of the film and could cause problems for the assumptions of viewers about sex therapy and sexual surrogacy. Sex therapists typically always work with a sexual surrogate in treating a client and they are very involved in monitoring the progress and effectiveness of surrogate partner therapy.
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It is possible that in adapting the story for film, O’Brien’s narrative was assumed to be too complex or too much of a downer to appeal to movie audiences and so the decision was made to add a touching love story. This being said, the film’s general likeability is supported greatly by the performances of Hawkes, Hunt, and Macy. Hunt shows almost as much vulnerability in her portrayal of Cheryl as Hawkes does playing the disabled O’Brien, and both have already received critical acclaim for their performances. “The Sessions” is worth seeing for this reason alone, but it is also worth seeing for the uniqueness of its story and its touching, feel-good effect.
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