In a city with a voracious appetite for cinema, the historic Aero Theater in Santa Monica, California, is famous for its smorgasboard of repertory programming, bringing restorations and revivals of classic films to L.A. film buffs. But for one recent evening, the single-screen movie palace looked to the present, hosting a special screening of 20th Century Fox’s The Sessions in celebration of its recent DVD/Blu-ray release.
The film stars John Hawkes as Mark O’Brien, an American poet and writer paralyzed from the neck down who resolves to lose his virginity at the age of 38. Uncertain about the level of intimacy his condition will allow, O’Brien consults a “sex surrogate,” Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Helen Hunt), to guide him – physically and psychologically – through his first sexual encounters. William H. Macy and Moon Bloodgood round out the cast as O’Brien’s supportive priest and his dryly funny caretaker, respectively.
The Sessions contains a lot of bawdy and frank talk about sex, but it’s handled with maturity and dignity and, shockingly, a real sense of innocence. The latter is attributable to the fundamentally good nature of O’Brien, a saintly wiseacre who’s quick to disarm gawkers and worriers alike with his vast collection of one-liners. His gentle character sets the tone for this sweet and surprisingly humorous film based on the real O’Brien’s writings about how his sexual awakening added a missing dimension to his sense of self-esteem.
After the screening, sex therapist and host of Nerdist’s Sex Nerd Sandra podcast, Sandra Daugherty, moderated a discussion with Sessions writer-director Ben Lewin and the real-life Cheryl Cohen-Greene about the issues presented in the film and the process of adapting a true story into a fictional entertainment. The audience’s most pressing question was answered almost immediately, with Lewin deadpanning about the moment he realized the key difference between the services provided by sex surrogates and prostitutes: “Hookers don’t take notes!”
With faint traces of the New England accent that Hunt accurately re-created in the film, Cohen-Greene patiently and professionally described her vocation to curious moviegoers. Yes, surrogates receive special training and always work with clients under the direction of a therapist; no, her work never affected her relationship with her husband (with whom she had an open marriage) or her ability to raise a family. When asked if her relationship with O’Brien was as close as it was portrayed in the film, Cohen-Greene admitted that they “fell in like with each other” but ultimately achieved their goal of “transference” as O’Brien sought and found an intimate partner after the success of his therapy.
Lewin’s candor was arguably more provoking than the not-so-prurient tales of Cohen-Greene. The idea for The Sessions came to him during research for a “tasteless” autobiographical sitcom called The Gimp that touched heavily on the subject of sex and the disabled. Gesturing to his own leg braces, the jovial Aussie noted that the story had a personal resonance in the late O’Brien’s search for self-acceptance and his unflappable sense of humor. The filmmaker’s own sharp wit gave any discussion of disability a humorous bent. Playfully warning the audience that “anyone can join [the disabled] at any time,” he called himself part of a “welcoming minority” proud of the fact that “you can’t just fall out of a window and become gay!”
When the topic of the film’s Oscar hopes came up – Hunt is nominated in the Best Supporting Actress category – both Lewin and Cohen-Greene demurred and also praised Hawkes’ impressive performance. The fact that The Sessions garnered any awards attention at all seemed like a pleasant surprise and a secondary concern for Lewin, who triumphantly bragged that all his investors got their money back. It makes sense: considering he’s created a perfectly laid-back film (assist to the quaint bungalows and paisley fashions of Berkeley in the late ’80s) that couches its message in kindhearted pragmatism, it’s easy to forget the cynics and sharks that exist outside its sweet-natured world, if only for a couple hours.