TERRY GROSS, HOST:
The new film "The Sessions" is based on the story of Mark O'Brien, who had polio as a child, and as a result, spent most of his life in an iron lung. But he still managed to graduate fm UC Berkeley and become a writer. He was the subject of an Oscar-winning documentary in 1996 called "Breathing Lessons." The new semi-fictionalized film stars Helen Hunt and John Hawkes as O'Brien. Film critic David Edelstein has a review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: In 1983, Berkeley poet and journalist Mark O'Brien wrote an article about sexual surrogates, women and men trained to help people with disabilities learn to use their bodies to give themselves and others erotic pleasure. For O'Brien, the subject wasn't academic. After a bout of childhood polio, he'd spent much of his life in an iron lung. He could talk and tap out words on a typewriter holding a stick in his mouth. He could feel things below the neck. But he couldn't move his muscles.
In an article published in 1990, O'Brien admitted he was jealous of the people he'd interviewed in 1983. It turns out he was, at the time, a virgin. The second piece was called "On Seeing a Sex Surrogate," and it's the basis for the movie "The Sessions."
Two things snuck past my defenses against what I snarkily call the disability-of-the-week Oscar-bait. The first is that Mark, played by John Hawkes, is almost never seen at anything but a 90-degree angle, sometimes in his iron lung, sometimes on a rolling stretcher - never sitting up. That sidelong vantage creates a kind of distance and keeps the pathos from being in your face. The second is he's so funny.
Hawkes bears little resemblance here to the meth-fueled uncle he played in "Winter's Bone," or the Manson-like cult leader in the film "Martha Marcy May Marlene." His features are relaxed and his voice has no chest tones. He sounds like David Sedaris crossed with Liberace. He says at one point he believes in God because he needs someone to blame for what happened to him.
When he asks his priest, Father Brendan, played by William H. Macy, for permission to have sex, he adds it's urgent because he's nearing his use-by date. Macy's determined attempt to remain impassive while Mark gives Father Brendan more details than he needs is a thing of beauty.
At heart, "The Sessions" is a tender sexual coming-of-age movie. Helen Hunt plays the surrogate, Cheryl Cohen Greene, who shows up at the room Mark has borrowed. It's all legal, by the way, even kind of wholesome.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE SESSIONS")
HELEN HUNT: (as Cheryl) So.
JOHN HAWKES: (as Mark) Your money's on the desk over there.
HUNT: (as Cheryl) Yes, it is. Thank you.
HAWKES: (as Mark) That was the wrong way to start off.
HUNT: (as Cheryl) It really was. Shall we start again?
HAWKES: (as Mark) Please. You start.
HUNT: (as Cheryl) Although the aim is for us to have sex, I'm not a prostitute. You don't have to pay me upfront. I have nothing against prostitutes, but there's a difference. We can talk about that later.
HAWKES: (as Mark) I'm sorry.
HUNT: (as Cheryl) The other thing is there's a limit to the number of sessions we can have. Did Laura mention that when you saw her?
HAWKES: (as Mark) I'm sorry. I don't remember.
HUNT: (as Cheryl) The limit is six. But that gives us plenty of opportunity to explore.
EDELSTEIN: It's good to see Helen Hunt. She was overexposed for a few years, had some bum roles and dropped out for a spell. Seeing her again reminds you how plain-in-a-good-way she can be, her emotions rising up, as if by their own power and breaking through her level-headed demeanor. She makes Cheryl's shedding of her clothes seem at once professional and human, and without a trace of exhibitionism.
The 66-year-old writer-director Ben Lewin is best known for TV dramas and comedies in Australia, the U.K. and Hollywood. He takes a simple, matter-of-fact approach that respects the audience. You don't feel him working you over. At the same time, "The Sessions" doesn't have the kind of power of the best films of its ilk, among them "My Left Foot," with its raging, titanic performance by Daniel Day-Lewis.
The real O'Brien, seen in Jessica Yu's Academy Award-winning 1996 short documentary "Breathing Lessons," looks considerably more anguished than the O'Brien here - as well as, at four-foot-seven and 60 pounds, less solid than the tall and still-rangy Hawkes.
But I have a feeling that O'Brien, who died in 1999, would be pleased his story has been told as a good comedy with tears instead of a weeper with laughs. It fits his naughty, Catholic-boy mischievousness and his sideways vantage.
GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. This is FRESH AIR.
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