‘Ses­sions’ plays it straight with ab­sur­dity of sex, hu­man con­di­tion

The Commercial Appeal - Go Memphis - - Movies - By John Bei­fuss

“The Ses­sions” is a com­edy-drama based on the true story of a par­a­lyzed poet’s quest to per­form sex­ual in­ter­course with a paid “sex sur­ro­gate.”

Wait! Don’t go! Let me add that “The Ses­sions,” for bet­ter or worse, is the op­po­site of lurid.

The story of poet Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) is pre­sented as an in­spi­ra­tional, even crowd­pleas­ing cel­e­bra­tion of the tri­umph of in­tel­lect and spirit over phys­i­cal dis­abil­ity, in the man­ner of such fact-based prede- ces­sors as “My Left Foot,” with Daniel Day-Lewis as Ir­ish writer Christy Brown, and “The Div­ing Bell and the But­ter­fly,” with Mathieu Amal­ric as French jour­nal­ist JeanDo­minique Bauby.

Sense a pat­tern here? Un­sur­pris­ingly, the se­verely dis­abled are more likely to in­spire movies when they’ve al­ready dra­ma­tized their sto­ries through their writ­ing.

For film­mak­ers, such mem­oirs pro­vide a guide to the pro­tag­o­nist’s feel­ings, as well as ready-topluck di­a­logue and nar­ra­tion for an im­mo­bile hero who will be de­fined by words rather than by ges­ture and move­ment. A mem­oir also es­tab­lishes a prece­dent: It gives per­mis­sion, so to speak, to any­one who sim­i­larly wants to trans­form the hard ma­te­rial of a dis­abled per­son’s life into the stuff of art and, yes, en­ter­tain­ment.

“I n spi r a t i on a l ” ? “Crowd-pleas­ing”? For some movie­go­ers, those words are as dis­cour­ag­ing as “sex sur­ro­gate.”

But cyn­ics as well as op­ti­mists should en­joy “The Ses­sions,” which seems al­most cer­tain to earn Hawkes a Best Ac­tor Os­car nom­i­na­tion, along­side Joaquin Phoenix (“The Mas­ter”), Daniel Day-Lewis (“Lin­coln”), Den­zel Wash­ing­ton (“Flight”) and some other dude (maybe An­thony Hop­kins for the up­com­ing “Hitch­cock”?). Fre­quently fully nude co-star He­len Hunt also seems cer­tain to score an Academy Award nom­i­na­tion for her work as re­al­life sex ther­a­pist Ch­eryl Co­hen Greene.

“The Ses­sions” opens with clips from a vin­tage TV news story about the poet, shot when O’Brien was seek­ing a de­gree at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley, and pro­pel­ling him­self awk­wardly about cam­pus with the chin-op­er­ated con­trols of a mo­tor­ized trun­dle bed.

A news­caster de­liv­ers what we un­der­stand to be the movie’s theme: “Mark O’Brien teaches us that courage and per­se­ver­ance over­come ob­sta­cles.”

Jump to 1988, where the witty, ar­tic­u­late, 38-yearold O’Brien — es­sen­tially par­a­lyzed from the neck down, ex­cept for his func­tional and sen­si­tive sex or­gan — is a writer and poet in Berke­ley, cared for by at­ten­dants who dress and feed and clean him.

As O’Brien, Hawkes spends the en­tire film twisted and stretched out on his back, on a bed or gur­ney or inside an iron lung.

He holds his head to the right, at an awk­ward down­ward an­gle. He sounds like a con­gested Jay Baruchel, and he en­tirely lacks the men­ace that pre­vi­ously was his sig­na­ture in such less charm­ing films as “Win- ter’s Bone” and “Martha Marcy May Mar­lene.”

Par­a­lyzed since child­hood due to po­lio, O’Brien ad­mits he of­ten feels like “dried-up bub­blegum stuck on the un­der­side of ex­is­tence.” A Catholic who be­lieves in a God with “a wicked sense of hu­mor,” O’Brien says he is tor­tured by “ec­stasies of de­spair,” brought on by thoughts of women. As he con­fesses to the long­haired and non­plussed new parish pri­est (a dead­pan Wil­liam H. Macy): “My pe­nis speaks to me, Fa­ther ...”

A be­liev­able se­ries of cir­cum­stances per­suade O’Brien to hire a sex ther­a­pist or “sur­ro­gate” so he can lose his vir­gin­ity be­fore his “use-by date.” As played by an un­abashed Hunt, the mar­ried Greene is good-na­tured and nonon­sense — and com­pletely un­in­hib­ited as she ini­ti­ates a se­ries of “body aware­ness ex­er­cises” on the first of what she says will be a max­i­mum of six sex-ther­apy ses­sions with O’Brien.

For its first hour, “The Ses­sions” works won­der­fully as a com­edy about the ab­sur­dity of the hu­man con­di­tion (think Woody Allen in an iron lung), thanks in large part to a cast that plays the po­ten­tially un­com­fort­able ma­te­rial en­tirely straight. (Ac­tress Moon Blood­good is a stand­out as O’Brien’s se­vere Chi­nese as­sis­tant, a stereo­typ­i­cally in­scrutable young woman in Mr. Moto glasses and tight braid who reg­is­ters only the barest signs of af­fec­tion­ate amuse­ment at her boss’ predica­ment.)

The sex ma­te­rial is frank and funny (in­ter­course, ac­cord­ing to O’Brien’s male care­giver, is “over­rated but nec­es­sary”), and the mat­terof-fact ap­proach to the sex ther­apy is re­veal­ing in more ways than one.

Un­for­tu­nately, like his story’s hero, writer-di­rec­tor Ben Lewin — work­ing from O’Brien’s 1990 mag­a­zine ar­ti­cle, “On See­ing a Sex Sur­ro­gate” — is “sus­cep­ti­ble to trans­fer­ence”: He can’t let a good time just be a good time.

The movie be­comes poignant to a fault dur­ing its fi­nal act, pre­sent­ing O’Brien as a brave, funny, un­selfish ro­man­tic­fan­tasy dream hero for dis­ap­pointed, weary or jaded older fe­male movie­go­ers. O’Brien is an ideal part­ner: eter­nally grate­ful for even the small­est wom­anly at­ten­tion, yet un­de­mand­ing and lit­er­ally un­able to force him­self on any­one. For­get the bed­room: His sen­si­tive na­ture alone is enough to bring smart, sexy women to tears. Rather than present hard truths, the film ul­ti­mately ide­al­izes and san­i­tizes O’Brien; it’s a com­fort­ing por­trait of an un­threat­en­ing yet ir­re­sistible movie hero.

“The Ses­sions” is at the Malco Ridge­way Four.

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