I’m puzzled by the new disability movie, “The Sessions.” The movie gives me way too many things to think about—just like life. I’m gratified that a movie about disability gives me so much to ponder. Simply, “The Sessions” presents the day-to-day life of a disabled man and his quest to get laid for the first time. The movie is so naturalistic, unblinking, and uncritical that I was surprised, engrossed, and forgot to be critical or embarrassed. Throughout, the gaze of the camera is so ordinary. That makes it is the most unusual and surprising movie about disability or sex I have seen. Credit goes to the director and writer, Ben Lewin for an insider’s view of the disability experience. The actors, Helen Hunt and John Hawkes also deserve recognition for their unsensationalized performances.
Ben Lewin is one of two “out disabled” directors in the DGA, Directors Guild of America. His goal, in addition to providing him with a living, is to demystify disability. The best disability films, “Coming Home,” “My Left Foot,” “The Men,” are great but they do not have the profound insiders perspective of “The Sessions.” In the movie we get to see many of the mundane details of living with a profound disability. It’s an important, and thank goodness, very good movie and depiction of disability life.
The true story revolves around Berkeley writer, Mark O’Brien’s journey to lose his virginity. The movie is based on his oft-reprinted article published in The Sun Magazine in 1990 , “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate.” It is a complex story given his family upbringing, Catholicism, and just being a disabled man in the 1980s. He was also seen in the Oscar-winning documentary of his life and poetry, “Breathing Lessons.” But, we did not get to know him as we do now in this somewhat fictionalized account.
O’Brien was one of those polios that used his intellect and sense of humor to connect with the wider world. We’ve known many of them, and most are now gone. I’m not sure what it is about polios. One theory of mine is they gained confidence in who they were in the open wards and the polio camps of the 50s. They found their disabled brothers and sisters early on, and they changed the world. Whether it was Ed Roberts, Paul Longmore, Irv Zola, or even Doc Pomus, lyricist of “Save the Last Dance for Me,” they refused to believe it was Okay to exclude their disabled brothers and sisters, their community, from life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
O’Brien’s pursuit of happiness lead him to want to have conventional, heterosexual, full penetration sex with someone. That sounds like just about any young man. In this case O’Brien was 38 years old, had very few muscles he could control, limited finances, disapproving parents, and his Catholic faith to complicate the story. Because he slept in an iron lung he did not even have a bed big enough for two. That he succeeded in his quest is a wonderful example of the guts disabled people must often call upon to be successful.
In essence, the movie is a procedural. We are used to courtroom or detective procedurals. And, we might have even seen disability procedurals saying, “Look at the pain, look at the struggle, isn’t it inspiring!” “The Sessions” shows how mundane and often tedious the disability life can be. The triumphs are often small, yet real. In “The Sessions” John Hawkes as Mark O’Brien, gets up his courage to fire a personal care attendant he doesn’t like. For anyone who has had to fire an employee, you know how hard it is. Employment management is not the stuff of a tear-jerking TV movie of the week. It is about a man gaining new skills and practicing them.
The telling moment that telegraphed this was both a procedural and an insiders’ perspective was Mark’s character explaining why he needed someone to push him in his gurney when he went out. Despite many mirrors on his motorized gurney, Mark still caused too many accidents. He had to fall back on being pushed. This is the stuff of disabled people’s lives—our mobility, or lack thereof, our freedom, and our interdependence on others.
There is something about a well-made procedural. It takes us step-by-step introducing a problem and taking the steps to the solution. There is emotional tension in the journey, but not like dramas. We are always pretty sure when we watch procedurals that there is a solution—otherwise it would not be made into a movie or TV show. “The Sessions” takes us through Mark’s problem, his virginity, all the way to having a variety of sexual experiences. Most importantly, Mark matures in his relationships with potential romantic partners and gains a long-term girlfriend. In the beginning it looks like the point of the movie is for Mark to have sex. At the end we see it is about intimacy and relationship. It demonstrates how someone considered as so unlikely to live a routine, normal life does just that.
The Sessions: Based on the Triumphant True Story (2012), Fox Searchlight, written and directed by Ben Lewin from the story by Mark O’Brien, starring John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, and William H. Macy. Limited release October 19 and wider October 26.