They could have called it “The 38-Year-Old Virgin.”
In January, when Ben Lewin’s beautiful, funny film about the quadriplegic poet and journalist Mark O’Brien premiered at the Sundance Film Festival — winning two big prizes — it was called “The Surrogate.” Now, as it rolls into theaters and seeks much deserved awards-season attention, it has been redubbed “The Sessions.”
It is, whatever you call it, quite wonderful — a life-affirming story about the goodness in people’s hearts, the humor and compassion and love we are capable of. And it only takes a man who spent most of his life in an iron lung to point the way.
A victim of polio, O’Brien — portrayed by John Hawkes, using a lovely, nasal voice that gives even his most desperate entreaties a note of playful irony — can function for a few hours a day outside his Jules Verne-like contraption. In fact, before O’Brien was deemed a safety hazard on the streets of his hometown, Berkeley, Calif., he used a motorized gurney (controlled by a breathing tube) to get from Point A to Point B.
And here he is, age 38, a perceptive gent who doesn’t expect to be around all that much longer, looking to get to Point S, as in sex. He wants to know what it’s like to be with a woman, physically, and he seeks counsel from his priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy), to determine whether God will approve of his endeavor. Or, if not approve, at least cast his cosmic eye the other way.
Brendan, with his long hair and long looks — and the “vague ideas about life and death that we priests are equipped with” — tells his parishioner to go forth and do the deed. (Macy is terrifically amusing here.)
And so O’Brien contacts a sex surrogate. Her name is Cheryl. And she is played with just the right mix of clinical distance and new age-y free-spiritedness by Helen Hunt. They will have six sessions together — enough time for Mark to learn how things work, and to hopefully experience the pleasures to be had in a sexual union. And then they will be done.
Of course, it isn’t that simple. O’Brien may be inhabiting a body that splays and spindles in hopeless knots, but his intellect is agile and engaged. The man speaks with honesty. He dreams. He yearns. He is smart and quick and utterly charming. Cheryl gets to know Mark — yes, in the biblical sense, but also more intimately — and it throws her carefully controlled world, and marriage (Adam Arkin is the spouse), out of whack.
Lewin, a British director who himself contracted polio as a child, has adapted O’Brien’s writings (a magazine article, “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate,” and a memoir, “How I Became a Human Being: A Disabled Man’s Quest for Independence”) with symmetry and grace, and without cheap sentiment. And he made a brilliant choice in Hawkes, nominated for a supporting-actor Oscar for his turn as an Ozarks meth dealer in “Winter’s Bone.” Here, using only his tilted head, his eyes, nose, and mouth and that quizzical voice, Hawkes brings O’Brien to life.
It’s a performance from the inside out, and it honors not only O’Brien, but the best in all of us.
Directed by Ben Lewin. With John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy, Adam Arkin, and Moon Bloodgood. Distributed by Fox Searchlight.
Running time: 1 hour, 35 mins.
Parent’s guide: R (sex, nudity, profanity, adult themes).