It’s an unlikely topic for such a warm hearted film. Based on an article written by poet and journalist Mark O’Brien about his experience of wanting to have his first sexual experience. Severely incapacitated by childhood polio, and confined to an iron lung for all but 3 or 4 hours a day, when he could be wheeled around town on a mobile gurney, he achieves his ambition with the help of a sexual surrogate.
Because of his extreme immobility he has to rely on the assistance of his carers, and because of his religious faith he needs the counsel of his priest to achieve his objective. And it is Mark’s relationships with each of these people that brings the heart to the movie.
Helen Hunt, as the surrogate, has been nominated for an Oscar, and she is indeed good, imbuing her character with a straight forward kindness, and an unembarrassed approach to teaching the mechanics of sex, but it is John Hawkes, as the paralysed writer whose performance is at the centre of the film. He spends the entire movie in a prone position, able to move only his face and head, and that to turn comfortably in only one direction. I wanted to turn my own head sideways to try to see his face the right way up, so that I could recognise him as the same actor who had played such disturbing characters in Winter’s Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene.
There are moments of gentle humour, in Mark’s exchanges with his sympathetic and trendy priest, who in William H Macy’s performance, has a hint of regret and envy in his eyes as he endorses the idea of sex outside marriage and when hearing about Mark’s tender encounters with the surrogate. And the straight faced Chinese American carer who takes him to his ‘appointments’ and deflects the attention of an inquisitive hotel receptionist by telling him exactly what was happening in the room they had rented by the hour, knowing she won’t be believed, was joyously entertaining. But it is the search for affection which is the heart of the film, and it reaffirms the notion that it can be found by everyone in the most unexpected places.
It’s a feel good film about kind people, and all the better for that.