Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) is a poet. He graduated from UC-Berkeley with a degree in English and now works as a poet/journalist. He is also a survivor of polio. As a result of the disease, he now has to spend most of his time in an iron lung. He is not quadriplegic. He simply has no control over his muscles. He is a deeply religious man.
He also very much wants to have sex. Mark first falls in love with his caretaker Amanda (Annika Marks). He asks her to marry him, but she just does not feel that way about him. Mark then seeks advice from a therapist, who points him in the direction of a sex surrogate. He seeks the advice of his priest Father Brendan (the always phenomenal William H. Macy), who tells him that Jesus would probably give him a free pass for having sex outside of marriage. Father Brendan is probably the coolest priest I have ever seen depicted in the media.
Mark then meets his sex surrogate Cheryl (Helen Hunt). She quickly explains the difference between a sex surrogate and a prostitute. Though both receive money for having sex with people, Cheryl is not looking to establish repeat business. There is a limit on the number of “sessions” she will have with a client, in order to prevent too much attachment. Cheryl’s job is to guide Mark through his sexuality. She wants to help him discover what feels good, what he likes, what he doesn’t like, and so forth. His primary goal is to achieve full penetration with a woman, so that is what the two of them work toward.
The film is exquisitely crafted. It is based on the article Mark O’Brien wrote about his experiences. The script was written by Ben Lewin, who also directed the film. Going into the awards season, most of the buzz is around Hawkes’ performance, as well as Hunt’s. Personally, I found Helen Hunt’s performance to be astounding. Her struggle to remain professional while clearly becoming attached to this client is something to which anyone who has been in a helping profession can relate. It is a very subdued performance and there are very few instances where you see her truly start to lose it. I have always preferred quieter performances to ones that are more in your face. At this point in the awards season, I would love to see Hunt become the frontrunner for the Best Supporting Actress race.
I also greatly enjoyed the fact that the film depicted a person with a disability as someone with a sex drive. Our society typically paints those with disabilities as these sexless beings. That is simply not the case. We need to understand that regardless of a person’s disability, he or she is still a human being. Sex is a biological urge. The majority of people with disabilities want to have sex at some point in their lives. It is extremely refreshing to see a film that acknowledges that fact.
In terms of gender representation, the film does pass the Bechdel test. We see a very brief scene between Cheryl and Mark’s caretaker Vera (Moon Bloodgood) in which Cheryl has a bit of an emotional breakdown. There is also a longer scene between Cheryl and the Mikvah Lady (Rhea Perlman) at a synagogue. They have a conversation about sexuality and how women feel about being naked. It is not a particularly long scene, but it raises a lot of really interesting questions.
We primarily see women in caretaker positions. The main caretakers are Vera and Amanda. However, Mark also has an aide named Rod (W. Earl Brown), who we see in a limited capacity. The relationship between Mark and Father Brendan is also very interesting. These two men spend the majority of the film talking about sex. However, they do it in a way that focuses on Mark’s vulnerabilities and fears. It’s extremely refreshing to see two men talk about sex in a way that does not objectify women at all. For a film where the two main characters spend a good portion of the time naked, I never felt like either character was objectified. Sex is portrayed in a very natural way. We see how it can be awkward and funny at times. It’s never meant to be really romantic between these people, but it still feels very intimate.
I would love to see the film get more buzz in the Best Picture category because I feel like it is a very well-crafted movie. I highly recommend it.