The passion belongs to writer-director Ben Lewin and the courage to the producers who financed his passion. The fact is the film is actually a crowd-pleaser. Only when you describe the movie, it sounds like anything but.
Fortunately, at Sundance this year, where the film then titled “The Surrogate” won a special jury prize and audience award, Fox Searchlight acquired the picture for distribution. Fox’s specialty unit has a fine track record for handling adult pictures like this, so Lewin and his producers, Stephen Nemeth and Judi Levine, are off to a good start.
Okay, so why does an upper sound like a downer? Well, first of all, it’s a true story about a guy who spent most his life in an iron lung due to polio. Oh God, I hear you moan, not another movie about the handicapped.
But — the guy, who was still a virgin at age 38, wanted to get laid. Oh, I hear you now say, there’s some sex. So it can’t be all bad.
Yes, there is sex and nudity — and comedy, extremely good acting, maybe a few tears, and astute writing and direction to take a viewer through this amazing journey.
Casting is everything in a movie like this. In the three main roles the filmmaker could not have chosen better.
Almost as crucially, in smaller roles throughout the picture, Lewin found just the right actor to inhabit those parts with life forces that underscore the comedy while never short-changing the drama.
That splendid character actor John Hawkes (“Winter’s Bone,” “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” but you won’t recognize him from those roles) plays a Berkeley, California-based writer and poet, Mark O’Brien, who did spend most his life in that iron lung.
William H. Macy plays a Catholic priest to whom Mark admits his desire to lose his virginity and who responds to this desire with a compassion that one can only wish all men of religion would embrace.
Helen Hunt is the final star, playing a sex surrogate who undertakes the role of both a sex coach and love partner to work with the bed-ridden man to achieve that very understandable goal.
Once Mark sets his sights on the goal, however, doubts are everywhere. He’s as nervous as a guy going on a first date, which in a way he is.
He is a little bit terrified about this woman coming to have sex with him. His orgasms when a female nurse washes him have made him feel guilty and dirty and that Catholic upbringing doesn’t help when it comes to guilt about sex.
But Father Brendan (Macy) has a way of altering that viewpoint and Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Hunt) has a similar compassion as the surrogate. But what in the world are “body awareness exercises?”
In a very real sense, the movie means to educate its audience about what the sex act means as well. Look, this is still a deeply puritanical nation, which has resulted in the extremes of radical guilt-mongers and worse who can’t keep their noses out of other people’s bedrooms or fans of Internet porn and worse who treat sex as a consumable good.
So what we end up with is crazy people ready to trash other human beings because of their inability to understand the nature of sex, either how to serve one of a human being’s primal urges or how to transcend it.
So the movie takes us all into Cheryl’s classroom, as it were, where in instructing the uncooperative body of a man without muscle control how to physically have sex, a viewer starts to realize the healing power of both the act and the emotional response to that act.
Lewin (pictured left), 65, himself a polio victim, has the vision to see the comedy that lies therein. Not that there are gags as such or even worthy one-liners to quote here. Just the fact of a basic act that is the subject of scrutiny by different societal support systems — a therapist and a priest.
While Cheryl goes home at night to dictate into a tape recorder about her sessions with this unusual patient, the patient has his caregivers push his gurney to the parish church where he indulges Father Brendan with his failures and thoughts about those failures.
(His problem is premature ejaculations.)
Hawkes’ Mark has the capacity to think outside his body. He sees his situation for what is it and however much it terrifies him it also amuses him. Since he has the soul of a poet, he sees the experience as funny and serious at the same time.
Hunt’s Cheryl is a fearless pioneer. She is not afraid of her nakedness and understands professional boundaries but sees where one can relax those standards for the benefit of everyone.
She’s married and has a son — the movie doesn’t get that much into her life since it’s not her story — and it’s amazing how okay everyone is with her work although her understanding husband develops strong reservations about this particular case.
Macy’s priest is not your usual movie priest. At no time does he or his character mock either the church or this increasingly difficult profession in the modern age. He levels with his most unusual parishioner and treats him as an equal in the challenges they face together.
The real Mark was a committed Catholic, albeit one with a sharp mind and even sharper sense of humor. So it mattered to him that a priest give his blessing for him to commit a mortal sin … sort of.
Sex, he and his priest come to understand, has a spiritual dimension.
(Jessica Yu’s Oscar-winning documentary “Breathing Lessons” (see it here) focused on the real O’Brien, in which he speaks about his life and sex and the poetry he wrote.
“The Sessions” itself opens with actual footage of O’Brien graduating from UC Berkeley at age 30, even then determined not to let his failed body defeat him or keep him from living a full life.)
Fine performances continue on with Moon Bloodgood as Mark’s lay helper; Jennifer Kumiyama, a handicapped woman who offers her home for his “rendezvous”; the women in his life — his first love (Annika Marks) and the one he meets after his sessions (Robin Weigert) — and even a motel clerk (Ming Lo) who is curious about the activities in one room when Mark goes there with his surrogate.
I hope some of this conveys the adventurousness of the film as well as its sense of humor. It’s so gratifying to experience a movie where you realize the filmmaker knows exactly what he’s doing every step of the way and is absolutely right in all his choices.
Lewin has worked in docs and features and been a staffer at BBC Television but none of his previous works has achieved the level of acclaim as “The Sessions.” So his is a great story too, that of a man who hits gold at 65.
Opens: October 19, 2012 (Fox Searchlight)
Production: Such Much Films, Rhino Films
Cast: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy, Moon Bloodgood, Annika Marks, Adam Arkin, Rhea Perlman, W. Earl Brown, Robin Weigart
Director-screenwriter: Ben Lewin
Based on an article by: Mark O’Brien
Producers: Stephen Nemeth, Judi Levine
Executive producers: Maurice Silman, Julius Colman, Douglas Blake
Director of photography: Geoffrey Simpson
Production designer: John Mott
Music: Marco Beltrami
Costume designer: Justine Seymour
Editor: Lisa Bromwell
R rating, 94 minutes