‘The Sessions,’ reviewed by Marshall Fine


Sex is a magnetic force, one that attracts and repels with equal force. Those impulses can be electrifying or awkward, drawing us desperately while tripping us up regularly.

To make it even more difficult, this primal bit of attraction comes freighted with teachings about morality, religion and hygiene. Now add in the contradictions between them and what are you going to make of it?

Which is what makes Mark O’Brien’s story both memorable and compelling. As abstracted in Ben Lewin’s film, “The Sessions,” it’s the tale of a first-time sexual adventurer, launching himself into a world of intimacy he previously thought would be denied to him. The film opens Friday (10/19/12) in limited release.

O’Brien, who died in 1999 at 49, is played by the always surprising John Hawkes. First seen in his 30s, O’Brien has battled to graduate from the University of California-Berkeley. It’s the late 1980s and O’Brien, in his mid-30s, is, in essence, a quadriplegic; having contracted polio as a youngster, before the release of the polio vaccine, he spends his nights in an iron lung and his days being wheeled around on a gurney. He is not exactly paralyzed; it’s just that, from the neck down, as he puts it, “My muscles don’t work so well.”

Yet his mind is active, and he has fashioned a career for himself as an independent-living writer, working as a journalist and writing poetry. He relies on home-health attendants to give him mobility and care, but his career is his own. And it is a journalism assignment that launches him on the adventure that comprises much of this film.

The story he’s working on involves sex among the disabled. As he travels around the Bay Area, asking other handicapped people about the things they’re forced (or willing) to do to achieve sexual satisfaction with a partner, he gets an idea: that, at the age of 35, he’d like to experience sexual pleasure himself.

Two things seem to stand in his way. First is his condition, which will require a partner who is willing to, in essence, do all the work. Perhaps even more daunting: his Catholicism. He is a fervent Catholic, well aware of the church’s proscriptions against extramarital fooling around. But he finds an understanding priest in Father Brendan (William H. Macy) because, hey, it’s the Bay Area.

This review continues on my website.

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