THE 1997 Documentary Oscar went to “Breathing Lessons: The Life and work of Mark O’Brien”, a polio victim depending on an iron lung since age six.
Now polio survivor Ben Lewin, Polish-born, but Australian after arriving here aged three, has adapted O’Brien’s 1990 article “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate” into a feature film with potential for Oscar contention.
Committed Catholic O’Brien (John Hawkes) spent the last 43 years of his life able to control the movement of only three muscles. In Lewin’s film, Mark, weary of virginity’s holding back his life experience, consults Father Brendan (William H. Macy) about a plan to scratch a metaphorical itch in a spot regarding which the repressive nature of Catholic head office policy flies in the face of human reality. Father Brendan’s navigation around this schism combines gentle humour with comforting wisdom.
The film’s title refers to Mark’s four sessions with sexual therapist Cheryl (Helen Hunt who could well be on course for a second Oscar). Open, honest and beautiful, they deal with more than merely which bit goes where and does what in the choreography of sexuality.
Lewin’s staging of a story that even in today’s liberal attitudes towards nudity presents difficulties, has charm and style. The screenplay gives Hawkes and Macy delightful and challenging buddy moments ranging beyond the morality of sex without marriage.
Indeed, the film offers lessons that all priests might do well to heed. It also offers us mere mortals deep satisfactions generated by wide-ranging emotions well-sprinkled with witty humour and delivered by a virtuoso cast in a smooth, affectionate flow.
At Dendy and Capitol 6