Director: Ben Lewin
Starring: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy, Moon Bloodgood, Annika Marks
Written by: Ben Lewin and (based on his article) Mark O’Brien
Running Time: 95 mins
Release date: 18th January 2013
There are some subject matters that, if handled badly by a film director, could be construed as being in poor taste or a total taboo. The sexual desires of a disabled man is one such subject. Handled correctly, it could be enlightening, joyous and utterly charming. Thankfully, Ben Lewin’s comedy drama is the latter and includes some remarkable performances in a film that is surprisingly unsympathetic and yet beguiling.
Mark O’Brien is a poet and at 38 years old, is a virgin. He also has to spend a large portion of his life in an iron lung and has no real movement in his body because of poor muscle formation and yet has no control over his urges. Longing to know what it is like to have sex, yet held down by his disability and his religion, being that of a strict Catholic, Mark is advised to be visited by a sex surrogate, a woman who will guide him through the ways of sexuality and yet is doing this more in a therapeutic manner than just having sex.
Into his life comes Cheryl, a woman who is allowing him six sessions in which she we help him lose his virginity and so begins a relationship that Cheryl finds she cannot resist while Mark feels he is finally entering manhood.
What I found so delightful about Lewin’s film is that it has a lightness of touch and yet isn’t flippant about disability or the fact that no matter how bad the disability, that the same urges and needs are required. Lewin, a polio sufferer himself, has taken as the inspiration, an article written by O’Brien about his sessions with a sex surrogate and produced a film lacking in sentimentality, which is a rare thing nowadays from Hollywood.
It has a lot of scenes involving Mark and Cheryl in bed and their conversations are quite detailed and adult and even these are dealt with in a mature and positive manner. It would have been easy for the film to head down the sex comedy path and made jokes about the situation but it steers well clear from these and so we have adults talking like adults about adults subjects.
The performances are terrific. John Hawkes is remarkable as Mark, who spends his time on his back and is so painfully thin you almost forget that this is an actor playing a part. He develops a richly intelligent, warm and witty man brilliantly. It is a travesty that he hasn’t been given more recognition for his performance because his belongs to be alongside the likes of Day-Lewis and Washington.
As Cheryl, the woman who helps Mark, Helen Hunt is back and on fire. Nicely underplayed, she is both sympathetic without being gushing and simply lovely with it. You instantly fall in love with her calm, persona and I think a lot of women will be jealous of her, as she bravely spends most of her screen time naked, and at nearly 50, she look fantastic.
It’s very easy to slap acclaim onto the two leads but we must not forget William H. Macy as Mark’s priest and confidant. His is a nicely pitch comic performance as he listens to Mark’s very personal desires and yet is there to help. The scenes between the two men are a delight.
I fear that, with so many big (and LONG) movies that have been lavished with hundreds of nominations coming out in the next few weeks, that this small yet perfectly formed gem will be overlooked. Try not to though. It’s sweet, charming and has it’s heart in exactly the right place. And while some might be shocked at the explicit nature of the film, in the end it’s not about just sex but about a man wanting to be loved for all the right reasons. I would have happily spend several hours with these lovely, lovely people.