Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes) spends most of his day in an iron lung. It breathes for the 38-year-old, since his muscles are severely weakened from a childhood bout of polio. So while the nerves in his body are still receptive, he can't really move. For about four hours a day, an aide takes him outside on a gurney, and he breathes with a portable respirator.
When Mark gets a new aide named Amanda (Annika Marks) who's young, porcelain skinned and lovely, Mark falls madly in love with her. She is kind and patient and takes him on picnics. When he confesses his love to her, she becomes overwrought. She loves Mark too. But not like that. She decides she can no longer care for him.
Mark is of course heartbroken, but Amanda has awakened something inside him — a sexual desire or longing he hadn't considered until now. He is a man, after all. When he finds out a handicapped friend of his has a very active sex life, he discusses his own prospects with none other than his Catholic priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy).
True to Berkeley, California's, hippie roots, Father Brendan isn't your average sour-faced man in a collar. With long curly hair, Father Brendan supports Mark's quest for a sexual experience despite the fact he's not married. He looks at Mark's motionless body barely able to suck on an oxygen tube and states, "The big guy will probably give you a free pass on this one."
Mark hires professional sex surrogate Cheryl (Helen Hunt), and his much anticipated sexual journey begins. Cheryl is pleasantly matter-of-fact in that therapist way — no secrets, no surprises, just brutal honesty (and she's married!). She explains to Mark the difference between a sex therapist and a prostitute. While a prostitute wants your repeat business, a sex therapist does not. In fact, he is limited to six sessions, most likely to limit the emotional bonding that can take place, especially with someone so inexperienced as Mark.
The physicality of Helen Hunt getting oral sex from a quadriplegic is shockingly intimate and a bold move on the part of the filmmakers. But it is also incredibly humbling. Mark genuinely wants to know what it's like to give a woman an orgasm, and his intentions are as sweet as they are courageous.
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