The Sessions - Finally a Realistic Movie Portrayal of Disability

I saw the movie 'The Sessions' on Sunday. I was SO thrilled to see it because I was concerned that it was not going to play in Edmonton as it's a small, art house type of movie that usually goes into limited release and never plays for long. Thank you, Princess, for showing it.

To catch you up, in case you haven't heard of if, The Sessions is based on the true story of journalist and poet Mark O'Brien. O'Brien had polio as a child and lost almost all of his mobility. He spent most of his time in an iron lung which allowed him to breath. He had extremely limited use of his hands. He got around on a motorized gurney for a time and at other times had attendants who moved the gurney for him. The movie focuses on his experiences with a sex surrogate that he hired in Berkley after realizing that he wanted to find a way to explore his sexuality and experience sex with someone else.

I was immediately attracted to the movie when I saw the trailer. It seemed like this was finally a movie with a disabled main character who was portrayed as a fully realized human being and not a sidekick or an object of pity. We just do not see that on the big screen. (with the notable exception of My Left Foot, but how long ago was that?).

NOTE: The following contains some small spoilers.

I really enjoyed the movie but I didn't love it. Oh, how I wanted to love it. These were the things that I did not love:
1. I felt that the story-writing and editing were lacking - this is sad given that this is a movie about a poet - the story development just didn't work for me - the first part of the movie tried to cover his history so quickly that you never got a chance to get to know him as a person - there just wasn't a lot of depth to it - I am one big ball of raw emotion, I cry during McDonald's commercials, this movie should have blown me away and it didn't
2. I was perplexed by the focus on penetrative sex - although he didn't really say it in the scenes in which he is contemplating hiring the surrogate, Mark and Cheryl become very focused on having him experience 'full penetration' - once they've achieved that, they both seem to think they are done - I can understand why someone, particularly in our culture, would believe that this is the most important act in terms of sexuality but I really wish they had explored why they both were so focused on this and how they felt about it - any sex therapist that I have ever met is careful not to place supreme importance on this one act so this kind of bothered me - it also bothered me because I've read a little of O'Brien's writing about this (he wrote an article on his experience on which the movie was based but I have yet to read the whole thing) and he said that actual intercourse was a bit of a disappointment to him and that he enjoyed the other things they did much more - this is mentioned in the movie but only briefly

Okay, having said that, here's what I loved about the movie.
1. The movie shows several people with disabilities and they are all just people - they all have lives, jobs, activities, friends, and even sexual partners, just like anyone else would - and they are shown interacting with the people around them just like anyone else would - with one small exception, no one in their lives condescends to them or treats them like children or invalids - YAY!!!!!!!!!!! - this is what I experience in my daily life - these people are the people that I know - yet we never see them on screen. Why?
2. The movie gives a fairly accurate depiction of what a client/therapist relationship would look like. I don't know very much about sex surrogacy and how those relationships usually work but I know a lot about how a therapeutic relationship works and this is what it looks like. There are a few little mess-ups that I think they threw in there for some drama, but for the most part, Helen Hunt portrays a therapist who conducts herself professionally yet allows herself to be human and warm with her client. In most movies with therapist characters, the therapist is wildly inappropriate, crossing boundaries left and right and throwing ethics to the wind. As a social worker, this infuriates me. SPOILER - at one point it looked like perhaps Cheryl and Mark would fall in love and I told my partner that I would get up and walk out of the theatre if that happened. It did not.
3. It does not take as a given that people with disabilities cannot have emotionally and physically intimate relationships. Mark seems to think that at the beginning but begins to realize that is not necessarily the case. The movie portrays his attempts to connect with a few women in a very compassionate and realistic way and these attempts turn out to be somewhat successful.

Overall, I enjoyed the movie for the content and the treatment of the subject. It was a breathe of fresh air in so many ways. I just wish it had been better movie making.

Mark O'Brien's story is really interesting. There is a documentary about him called Breathing Lessons which you can find here.