Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB.5. USA, 2012. Fox Searchlight Pictures, Such Much Films, Rhino Films. Screenplay by Ben Lewin, based on the article On Seeing A Sex Surrogate by Mark O’Brien. Cinematography by Geoffrey Simpson. Produced by Judi Levine, Ben Lewin, Stephen Nemeth. Music by Marco Beltrami. Production Design by John Mott. Costume Design by Justine Seymour. Film Editing by Lisa Bromwell. Academy Awards 2012. Golden Globe Awards 2012. Independent Spirit Awards 2012. Toronto International Film Festival 2012. Washington Film Critics Awards 2012.
Inspired by the true story of Mark O’Brien, particularly the Academy Award-winning short documentary Breathing Lessons by Jessica Yu. O’Brien was a scholar and writer who contracted polio as a child and spent most of his adult life living in an iron lung. At the time we reach him in this film, where he is played by a sympathetic John Hawkes, he has had his heart broken by a caregiver and decides that it is time for him to get to know the world of women and sexuality. He is put in touch with a sexual therapist (Helen Hunt) who spends a number of sessions getting him comfortable with his body and sexual abilities, herself eventually moved emotionally by this sensitive and intelligent man who is not self-pitying about his physical condition but is so severely limited by it. Hunt is a sharp actress whose reactions to her burgeoning feelings for our protagonist make for the moments the film really hits the right chords; at the same time we’re never quite sure who she is. The story is explicit about the fact that she is not a prostitute, and I have no trouble accepting that premise, but Ben Lewin’s screenplay is actually murky about displaying what the actual dividing line is between the two professions considering how intimidated he is by the scenes of sexual discovery. Balancing it out with unnecessary, contrived sequences of O’Brien telling his experiences to a sympathetic priest (a game William H. Macy) only makes the squeamishness that much more obvious, the rest of the time completely ignoring the fact that, other than being disabled, O’Brien was also an artist and published thinker and not the figure of bland sainthood that this film makes him out to be.