Greetings again from the darkness. In 1997, director Jessica Yu won an Academy Award for her documentary short entitled Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien. Mr. O’Brien was a poet and journalist who attended Cal Berkeley. His story reaches the level of remarkable once you understand that he suffered the harsh effects of polio, was almost entirely paralyzed, and was confined to an iron lung for all but 3-4 hours per day. Director Ben Lewin (a Polio survivor) has taken a specific part of O’Brien’s story and turned it into a very entertaining and intimate film that explores the challenges faced by the disabled in leading a full and sexual life.
In 1990, O’Brien had an article published: “On Seeking a Sex Surrogate“. It detailed his desire to overcome the obstacles and experience a sexual relationship. He did so by working with Cheryl Cohen Greene, a Berkeley based sex surrogate … also a wife and mother of two. This is the very touching, and quite funny, story of how Cheryl (played here by Helen Hunt) worked with O’Brien (played by John Hawkes) to overcome his fear and anxiety. These sessions occurred after O’Brien “cleared” his plan with his Catholic priest (William H Macy). All three of these actors deliver, and Hawkes is especially fascinating as his voice and eyes must convey all emotions.
This story is as frank and honest as you might expect, and it avoids sinking into Hollywood sentimentality for the sake of the story. The truth is plenty powerful. O’Brien’s caregivers are played progressively by Rusty Schwimmer, Annika Marla and Moon Bloodgood. Cheryl’s husband is played by Alan Arkin and Robin Weigert plays Susan, the woman with whom O’Brien had a loving relationship until his death in 1999.
There are some similarities to the wonderful film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, but this story and these characters are much more accessible to the viewer … more in line with this year’s highly recommended The Intouchables. These are people with whom we care about and connect. It’s a vivid reminder that living a full life regardless of one’s constraints should always be the goal. Incidentally, Cheryl still works as a surrogate these days … at age 68.
SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are inspired by the true stories of remarkable people OR you just want to see Helen Hunt get nekkid.
SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are uncomfortable watching an adult come to terms with sexuality in spite of the obstacles stemming from his disability.
watch the trailer: