Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Sessions

Photo: Fox Searchlight Pktures
Like The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,  Ben Lewin’s The Sessions is based on a real story about a disabled person with a well developed inner life and ability to communicate. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was more severe since it dealt with a French journalist who suffered from locked-in syndrome. In The Sessions the central character Michael O’Brien (John Hawkes) is a poet and journalist whose story “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate,” becomes the basis for the movie. O’Brien who was afflicted with polio as a child lives in an iron lung and yet still has desire and an as yet unfulfilled capacity to express it. The commercial film industry loves stories of disabled characters who overcome tremendous odds. The Miracle Worker, the story of Helen Keller, was, of course, the Ur example of the heroic overcoming of disability. But we are in another age of therapy and sexuality—both of which themes help to propel The Sessions to a higher level. However, before O’Brien attempts either of these he confesses his desire to lose his virginity to his priest (William H. Macy). Due to the fact that O’Brien travels around on a gurney, he can’t fit into the usual confessional. The breaking down of this wall prefigures a key element of the plot in which Cheryl (Helen Hunt), the sex surrogate O’Brien hires, eventually crosses the line, having a counter transference that results in her falling in love with her patient. Of course, who asks a priest for permission to have sex out of marriage in the first place?  Taboos are being broken all over the place, not the least of which concerns disabled people and their suitability as sexual partners. Amidst all the expertly handled emotion around the mechanics of sex (though O’Brien has never been able to move his hands and hence masturbate, he can have erections), the movie is laugh-out-loud funny. When asked if he believes in God, O’Brien says “I would find it absolutely intolerable not to be able to blame someone for this.” When O’Brien asks his caretaker why she uses the word “dick,” she says “Penis sounds like some vegetable you don’t want to eat.” In many ways The Sessions is a classic tear jerker, but a terrific one due to its ability to meet to be sexy and funny and profound—while taking on a plethora of bodily frailties and functions that most directors and audiences would rather turn their gaze away from.

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