The film advertises sex for a disabled man; however, its wisdom is a gift for all couples.
I disagree with much of the descriptive media focus on the 2012 independent drama film, The Sessions, written and directed by Ben Lewin, a polio survivor. More about this soon.
This film, entitled The Surrogate when it deputed in the 2012 Sundance Film Festival (where it won the U.S. Dramatic Audience Award) stars two enormously gifted actors, John Hawkes, who depict the true lives of Mark O'Brien, a poet and journalist who due to childhood polio is paralyzed from the neck down and spends most of his hours in an iron lung, which he can leave for a very limited time each day and Helen Hunt, who plays Cheryl Cohen Greene, the sex surrogate he hires in order to lose his virginity.
O'Brien's story has been known prior to this film. He and Greene wrote the article "On Seeing A Sex Therapist," published in 1990. He also described his life journey in his book, How I Became a Human Being: A Disabled Man's Quest for Independence. In 1996 Jessica Yu won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short, which chronicled O'Brien's life.
Lewin attempted to find a disabled actor to depict O'Brien, but when he found no one he believed could play him effectively, he turned to Hawkes, who used foam sized as a soccer ball laid on the left side of his back to curve his spine.
But here is where I differ with the major advertising focus of The Sessions: In its depiction of successful sexual consummation by a physically impaired man the film has been likened to the 1978 film, Coming Home. Both are touted as films about sexually impaired men who overcome limitations. The latter starred Jane Fonda as Sally, an unhappily married woman who finds independence when her brutish husband (played by Bruce Dern) leaves to serve in Vietnam. Sally falls in love with John Voight, the soldier who returns from war a paraplegic. It is in their consummated love scene that Sally experiences her first orgasm.
Both films, however, are, in reality, about far more than overcoming physical limitations. They are about how not to lose each other, how to avoid divorce — and how each of us bring fears to sexual and emotional intimacy — fears that can destroy love and trust. Each film explores the personal lives of the principles focused on and shows how successful sexual consummation and continuing this satisfaction and the release and hope it brings involves far more than technique. In The Sessions, Hunt plays a serious professional with marital challenges of her own. Due to her client's severe deformities, sexual penetration will be exceedingly difficult, if at all possible. It is possible, as is mutual orgasm, because there is love, based on enormous respect, between them.
In both films, without giving away the evolving plot of The Sessions, the backgrounds of each character are understood (including the surrogate, Cheryl), in light of why intimacy and communication problems and lack of trust are malignant deterrents to closeness. In The Sessions viewers clearly see that unless these intimacy problems are faced, and communication is restored, sustained sexual closeness and satisfaction will not happen, and sexual closeness, the language of committed love, is endangered. In O'Brien's case, his fear of what he wanted so dearly and deeply is understood and explored in terms of guilt that he has felt since becoming ill. In Greene's case, the frustrations in her own marriage, and the choices before her, come to light.
Looking at both The Sessions and Coming Home from this viewpoint, we all come to the possibilities of sustained intimate relationships and commitment with deep limitations and challenges. It is love and its components — patience, kindness and a sense of humor — all based on self and mutual respect — and surely not technique — that makes sexual magic happen and continue. It is this quality of love that offers the humanity that protects and sustains intimate relationships and marriage.