John Hawkes is Mark. Mark suffered from polio when a young child, at the age of six. This left him with an inability to move most of all the muscles in his body, except those around his face and neck area. But, even though he is paralyzed, he has the complete ability to feel all parts of his body. He is 38 years old when the film starts. He has spent almost all of his life inside an "iron lung" machine for the majority of the time. The iron lung does the breathing for him. He is able to be out for a certain amount of time, using oxygen, which allows him to be able to breathe well enough to give him a few hours, at a time, away from his life support machine. Mark is not at all mentally handicapped; in fact he is both an accomplished poet and a published writer. This is how he makes his living. He was able to graduate from Berkeley University in California to great applause and support of his peers during the 1980's.
Mark is assisted by a number of caregivers, each taking an eight- hour shift to help him, bath him, feed him, and so forth. Mark falls in love with one of his caregivers, named Amanda (played by Annika Marks). She also has feelings for him, but when Mark proposes to her, she immediately leaves him. Mark is saddened by this. Because he is Catholic he consults with a priest, Father Brendan (played by William H. Macy). Mark gets a writing assignment to report on the sexual experiences of handicapped people, so with the help of his assistant, he goes on his gurney to their houses to interview them in person. The interviews are very graphic and surprising which gets Mark thinking about the possibility of himself having a sexual experience. This is how he meets Cheryl (played by Helen Hunt). Cheryl is a sex surrogate who specializes in helping severely challenged men have sexual experiences. Mark again consults with Father Brendan. Mark asks him, as a friend, to give him advice. Father Brendan supports Mark in his choice to have sexual experiences with the sexual surrogate.
Mark meets with Cheryl. Their meetings have a limitation of six sessions only to avoid transference where the patient falls in love with the practitioner. In spite of this safeguard, Mark and Cheryl fall for each other. Mark, because Cheryl is so kind, and Cheryl, because Mark is so funny and sensitive. Amanda comes back briefly to tell Mark she is going to Germany for up to 2 years. She is sorry that she cannot love Mark more, but she just can't. Mark's falling in love with Cheryl causes marital problems between Cheryl and her husband when Cheryl's husband finds a letter in the mail from Mark addressed to his wife. It is a very romantic poem that touches Cheryl deeply. Cheryl does the proper professional thing. Cheryl breaks off the relationship before it can go any further which saddens Mark until he meets a single nurse at the hospital, due to his near death from the power going off and his iron lung not functioning. It is clear that Mark can consummate both emotional and physical love-making.
Best part of story, including ending:
The best part of this story is how real, genuine, and honest it is about people's feelings. It is not only Mark that acts this way, it is also all of the other people he encounters that are very genuine.
Best scene in story:
When Mark asks Father Brendan if it would be a sin for him to have sexual relations out of wedlock with a sex surrogate and Father Brendan says he thinks he will get a pass on this one from God.
Opinion about the main character:
This movie is surprising because it deals with almost fully body muscular paralysis but that does not mean at all that Mark cannot feel his body. Quite the opposite. His body has even more heightened sensations; it is just that his muscles cannot move well. But as we learn in the film, he still is able to have an erection. So it is only natural for him to have sexual desires even in this condition.