I see that The Sessions is being nominated for some awards from minor groups. I hope this movie is nominated for many more awards, including the Oscars and, yes, even the Golden Globes. I’ll take Golden Globe nominations, because the more nominations this film gets, the longer it will be in theaters and the more publicity it will get. This is good - not just because it’s an excellent film but because I want people to see it.
I want people, many people, to see The Sessions, because it is one of the very few mainstream, non-documentary feature films that gets it about disability. Not since 30 years ago, when I saw Coming Home, which literally made me see that I could be sexual, have I been so turned on and encouraged by a mainstream movie dealing with living with a severe disability.
This film is breathtaking - literally - and not just because it puts living with a severe disability in your face. It is about Mark O’Brien (John Hawke, wonderful), a poet and journalist living in Berkeley in the 1970's who, having polio, spends much of his time in an iron lung and gets around by being pushed on a gurney and who wants to lose his virginity and, with the blessing of a cool, only-in-Berkeley Catholic priest (William Macy, better than ever with long hair), hires a sex therapist/surrogate (Helen Hunt, absolutely luminous) to help him do so. The film is based on an essay that O’Brien wrote about the experience.
If this sounds challenging, like “yikes!,” that because it is. From the time we see O’Brien being washed by an attendant that he doesn’t like, this is a hard film to watch. It just gets more real, painfully and brutally so, such as when the surrogate undresses O’Brien, prone and rigid, for the first time. As I said and as with Hunt’s full frontal nudity, this is in-your-face stuff. Definitely not like the all-too-glib, feel-good French film, Intouchables, that was all the rage earlier this year.
But this isn’t your standard sad, dreary, tragic-crip story. Yes, this is a man who can’t even use a wheelchair and has to suck on an oxygen tube, but he is brimming with life, love, wonder, curiosity and a sense of humor and adventure, if not mischief. (After all, hiring a woman so that he can fuck, not to mention consulting with a Catholic priest about it, is pretty gutsy and outrageous, while also remarkably naive and innocent.) Sure, that O’Brien is rejected when he makes romantic passes to his female attendants is morose, but it is frankly the way things are (believe me, I know).
At the same time, the movie, which was written and directed by a guy who has polio if I’m not mistaken, does a reasonable job at not making O’Brien too much of a brave, inspiring hero-crip. Although, as I said, what he does is pretty gutsy, and I guess it’s hard not to be inspired by him and his story - heck, I am (can you tell?)! There is some melodrama - there is a power outage one night, shutting down his iron lung, and he can’t call anyone on the phone (Why didn’t he have an overnight attendant? Did he not have enough funding for one? Mmm....perhaps the movie can be even more real....) - but it is again frankly the way things are.
Since seeing this film a month ago, I have also been even more aware of how I get around and how people see me in the world. For example, I whine about feeling trapped when it rains, but what about always being on a gurney? (The film opens with archival footage of O’Brien getting about on a motorized gurney, but, as explained in a voice-over, the motorized gurney was taken away because, even with a bunch of mirrors, he had no idea where he was going and caused “terrible accidents.”) And I both really see and am okay with sticking out when I zip around town in my chair with an attached computer that speaks and plays music even as I am more comfortable tilting back my chair and letting my body dangle when I’m out at talks and concerts.
There are several other things I love about this movie. I love it that it’s set in Berkeley, a city that I’ll always have a very soft spot for, even as I no longer want to live there or can take being there for more than a couple days. I love it that O’Brien has a very strong and pure Catholic faith and that he talks to Jesus and Mary and has a cool little icon sticker on the front of his iron lung. And I love it that his cat, that scampers in through an open window and brushes past O’Brien’s face at the beginning of the movie, is just like my cat Irie and that in the film’s last image, after O’Brien has died, the cat is perched on top of the iron lung, waiting.