Q&A With ‘The Sessions’ Director: A Mind Over Matter Take on Sex and Disability

After touching the world without lifting a finger, paraplegic Mark O’Brien wanted the favor returned.

John Hawkes and Helen Hunt in bed together in a scene from The Sessions

Helen Hunt and John Hawkes star as real-life bedmates Cheryl Cohen Greene and Mark O’Brien, respectively, in the new comedy The Sessions. (Photo: Courtesy of Fox Searchlight)

Stephen Saito writes about movies for the L.A. Times, IFC.com and his own site, The Moveable Fest.

At the time of his death in 1999, Mark O’Brien had accomplished many remarkable things in his 49 years. His achievements were all the more remarkable for the fact that a childhood polio affliction had paralyzed him from the neck down.

Rather than allow his quadriplegia to define him, the condition emboldened O’Brien to become a pioneer at the University of California at Berkeley. His acceptance into the Graduate School of Journalism paved the way for others who were similarly afflicted. While at school, O’Brien set up the Lemonade Factory, a small press in Berkeley that published his poetry and the work of others with disabilities.

Naturally, these inspirational endeavors made O’Brien the perfect subject for a film—the Oscar-winning biographical short Breathing Lessons, from Last Call at the Oasis documentarian Jessica Yu.

Now, a delightful new comedy, The Sessions, reveals one more personal best for O’Brien: an orgasm.

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While sexual exploits aren’t usually discussed in polite society, The Sessions is taking a cue from O’Brien in knocking down the stigma that surrounds attitudes towards both sex and the disabled. The film celebrates not only the power of the mind, but the form of the human body, no matter what shape it takes.

Illustrated throughout with elegant passages from O’Brien’s poetry and laced with a sharp sense of humor about the inherent awkwardness of losing one’s virginity, particularly when one is handicapped, the film tracks a turning point in the life of the devoutly Catholic writer (John Hawkes). He decides to hire a sex surrogate named Cheryl (Helen Hunt) to enjoy a first time carnal experience.

Much of the beauty and humor that made the film an Audience Award winner at this year’s Sundance Film Festival was informed by O’Brien’s own writing about his experience, but the movie’s soul also surely is a product of writer/director Ben Lewin’s own personal experience. Lewin also suffered from polio when he was young, and to this day requires crutches to walk.

“I remember someone coming out of a screening once and saying, ‘I’m never going to take sex for granted again.’ ”

“I was conscious of Mark’s sense of deprivation of touch,” says Lewin. “In normal everyday language, people touch each other all the time to communicate emotionally whether it’s a trivial kind of communication or it’s something more profound. [For most], touching is just part of everyday life, whereas people only touch Mark for practical reasons—medical or to wash him—but not for emotional reasons. In a way, [that] was the first level of understanding between him and Cheryl.”

Although Lewin never set out to make a film that would convey an understanding of his condition to the able-bodied, he had long been encouraged by friends to make light of his disability in the same good-natured way that he approaches life. In fact, it was while doing research for a sitcom he was developing called The Gimp that Lewin came across O’Brien’s article “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate” online and was “profoundly moved by it in this totally unexpected way.”

Lewin is now trying to extend that emotional journey to audiences.

“I remember someone coming out of a screening once and saying, ‘I’m never going to take sex for granted again,’ ” Lewin says of one of his favorite reactions to the film. “I really do appreciate the fact that [audiences] often seem to be thinking about it the following day. But I can’t put it in the form of a message. I think the message was the experience. ”

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