Everyone’s first time is daunting. But for Mark O’Brian, a 36-year-old man without the ability to move his body below his neck, the first time seemed impossible.
That is until O’Brian gets the idea to hire sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen-Greene, who would help him achieve full penetration so that he may go on and have fulfilling sexual relationships with other people.
This true story of a journey to discover O’Brian’s sexuality served as the inspiration for Mill Valley Film Festival feature The Sessions, which screened at the Smith Rafael Film Center on Saturday night. John Hawkes, who plays O’Brien, was honored with a Spotlight Award by the California Film Institute for his portrayal. Helen Hunt co-stars as the sex surrogate Cheryl.
“For the Spotlight Award, we like to look at an actor at a particular point in his career,” Director of Programming Zoë Elton said. “And this is a very particular time for John Hawkes.”
Hawkes’s career spans 26 years, and includes supporting roles in American Gangster and The Perfect Storm. He won nods from last year’s film festival with his role as Patrick, the object of Elizabeth Olson’s affection and terror in Martha Marcy May Marlene. Before that, his film Winter’s Bone was screened at the Rafael, where he played Teardrop, the intimidating uncle of Jennifer Lawrence’s Ozark Mountain girl who searched for her drug-dealing father.
“I’m referred to as a ‘character actor,’ but I never take exception to that because they are all characters in my opinion,” Hawkes said at the screening.
For O’Brian, Hawkes treaded on lighter territory, with a script that featured a rich sense of humor and compassion. “[The script] just grabbed me by the lapels and dragged me along and wouldn’t let me go,” he said.
The script, written and directed by Ben Lewin, was based on O’Brian’s article “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate,” where he outlines the fumbles, fears and joys of his first sexual experiences with Cheryl. O’Brian was left disabled after he contracted polio at around the age of 6, and Cheryl’s unflinching support in his journey helps ultimately achieve some intimacy.
Hunt talked with the Cheryl Cohen-Greene to prepare for her role, where she discovered a “sex positive” attitude that she wanted to recreate in her character. Hunt, who goes full-frontal nude in the movie without hesitation, said she was inspired by that “sex positive” attitude and wanted to incorporate in her own life.
The Sessions will be released in select theaters in mid to late October.
See more coverage of the 35th Annual Mill Valley Film Festival.
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