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film review: the sessions

It is a sad reality that even the most vociferous among us in favour of human equality, tend to overlook in our considerations people who are differently-abled. So, sometimes a bite-sized morsel of empathy in the form of a two-hour, independent film is necessary to remind us that there are people out there who have walked (or wheeled, perhaps) a different road. Take, for example, 2001’s I Am Sam, which shows an intellectually disabled father who is fighting to remain in custody of his seven-year-old daughter. Sure, cold, hard reason would dictate that leaving a child under the protection of a father – however loving – whose mental age is younger than her own, is not the most suitable of options. However, this film reminds us of those things that most of us don’t have to think about – things that we hardly think of as our rights, because we have easy access to them already. Things like parenthood. Also, in the case of The Sessions, things like sex.

The Sessions tells the true story of Mark O’Brien (played by John Hawkes), who, after contracting polio as a child, suffered severe muscle problems that rendered him a quadriplegic, though – significantly – without a loss of sensation. In many ways, Mark lives a normal life, even one to be envied: he is a poet and journalist, who graduated with a BA from the University of California at Berkeley and who likes baseball and finds comfort in his religion. He also faces the same problems that many men do – those relating to women, lust and love, in particular. Of course, a man who is forced to live the majority of his time in an iron lung in order to breathe, cannot lay claim to a completely normal life, or completely “normal” problems.

We see the one of the little opportunities for “power” that Mark has, when he confides in his liberally-minded new priest (William H. Macy, with a surfer’s beach swept hair) his plans to fire his detested, frumpy carer. We also see his much greater powerlessness, when he tells his newer, younger, and altogether more attractive, carer of his love for her, and she leaves, apparently distraught that she cannot reciprocate. Seeking that which has eluded him, Mark engages the services of a ‘sex surrogate’, Cheryl (Helen Hunt), in order to, at the age of thirty-eight, finally lose his virginity.

This is where things could have become interesting – at least in a political sense. Indeed, this is now becoming an issue for the politicians, after earlier in the year here in South Australia, Dignity For Disability MP Kelly Vincent introduced legislation that would see the government provide funding for disabled people to access the services of specially trained sex workers. However the question of whether what Mark is doing is right – which is to say, more generally, whether ‘sex surragacy’ (firmly and quickly differentiated from prostitutes by Cheryl… Really though, let’s call a spade a spade here) is such a good thing – is never really considered. The wider implications of what this man’s story might mean for others in a similar position, is glossed over.

Perhaps the trouble, if you could call it that, is that his story takes place in that shining bastion of liberalness, Berkeley, California. In such a place, ‘sex-critical’ feminist, Sheila Jeffreys would not be given the time of day. However her argument, that allowing for ‘sex-surrogates’ means that prostitution, believed by her to be unconditionally sexually exploitative, is given a firmer, more legitimate place in society, seems a pertinent one here.

The question of whether Cheryl is being exploited is an interested one. She is clearly in control, physically, of ‘the sessions’ in which she works with Mark – even when, during the first one, an understandably anxious Mark shouts at her, and she is slightly, yet visibly shaken. However, emotionally, we see her lose some of her control as she forms an attachment to Mark over the – brief! – time they spend together. As a plot development, their deepening relationship seems at best shallow and confused – it certainly seems to argue against the idea that prostitution (or ‘sex surrogacy’ if you must) can be pursued in a professional, dispassionate manner. In the worst case, however, the relationship between Mark and Cheryl is unsettling, and can be viewed as a case of blatant ‘male sex right’ (again, a nod to Sheila Jeffreys) rearing its troubling head.  We, as the audience, are expected to sympathise with Mark’s impossible love. We are not supposed to find it disconcerting that he calls Cheryl at her home to invite her out, or that he sends her a love poem in the mail (discovered by her non-too-happy husband). He is just a man in love after all and, moreover, a recent initiate into the uncontrollable joys of sex – guys will be guys, right? In the end, harmless though his actions are, it seems needless to point out that if Mark was an able-bodied man who had bought sexual services from Cheryl, his attempts to intrude in her personal life would be completely inappropriate.

It must also be mentioned that while Helen Hunt is frequently shown completely nude, John Hawkes never is. Should we be wondering why the female body is so frequently explicitly shown, when there is nary a penis in sight (after all, when speaking of his plans for an article he will write about his experiences, Mark points out that “sex sells”…and Helen Hunt does look rather trim and terrific in all her de-clothed glory), or is this one more insidious example of how able-bodied society is largely not allowed to think of the differently-abled body in sexual terms? Either way, for a film that is presumably about breaking down the barriers of discrimination, it seems in this instance wanting.

Much has been left unsaid here about the little moments of humour to found in The Sessions, or about the fine acting from its cast (a special mention should go to Moon Bloodgood, who plays Mark’s third carer – more sombre, though no less young or attractive than his second). On these points, indeed, it is a fine film, and well worth the watching.

If you go to see this film, you will no doubt be imagining what it would be like to wheel yourself down Mark O’Brien’s path. Imagine this, but also wonder what it would be like if he was walking down yours – how then would we view him and his actions?

Originally published by SPUR Magazine

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