Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Sessions Movie Review

One of the universalities of being human, one important thing that sets us clearly apart from the rest of the animals, is the pleasure, both physical and emotional, derived from sex. To make that physical connection with another person is a rite of passage we set for ourselves early on. It’s a mark that nearly every teenager desperately wants to reach. What if you were stricken with polio as a boy, your body left stiffened by a disease that wreaks havoc on your muscles? You’re not exactly paralyzed in the way most of us understand that condition because you have normal sensory perception throughout your body. You just can move anything. What if you reached middle age never having felt the exultation joining together sexually with another person? This is the beginning of the story in The Sessions, a true story about poet and journalist Mark O’Brien, who was also the subject of an Oscar-winning short documentary called Breathing Lessons in the late 90s. O’Brien documented his quest to lose his virginity in an article titled, “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate.”


O’Brien, as depicted by writer and director Ben Lewin, is a faithful Catholic who seeks advice from the new parish priest, Father Brendan. Mark deeply desires sex outside the bonds of marriage, but wants the Lord’s blessing, delivered through Brendan. He decides he wants this after completing an assignment for an article on sex and the disabled. His interviews reveal individuals who are so comfortable with their bodies, broken though they are, that they are able to get past that and thoroughly enjoy physical satisfaction with their partners. Mark’s several conversations with Brendan, delicately edited into the film between sessions with his sex surrogate, provide some of the lightest and funniest moments in the film, though they feel more like a writer’s device than something that might have really happened. They allow Lewin to reveal Mark’s inner thoughts without the awkwardness of narration. William H. Macy is an unorthodox choice to play a priest. There’s nothing about his presence that feels right, but I guess that’s sort of the point. Father Brendan, in telling Mark that he thinks Jesus will give him a free pass, is kind of an unorthodox representative of God.

The Sessions is the rare film about a person with a disability that never panders and never demeans itself for the sake of an emotional payoff. There’s not grand moment with sweeping music when Mark overcomes physical adversity to achieve greatness. He doesn’t seek anything like that. What he seeks is to be simply human. Yes, he eventually manages to have sex with a woman and it even lasts more than a moment, but Lewin presents it as a matter of fact. He doesn’t trump it up with phony grandiosity. There are no tug-at-the-heartstrings speeches. Disabled characters in movies have a tendency to feel like characters and not like people. Do you really think of Rain Man and Forrest Gump as people? Or are they gimmick designed to buy your love at the cheapest rate? John Hawkes makes Mark distinctly human. Much of the time you don’t really notice that he’s lying on a gurney. His infirmity calls attention to itself, but Lewin’s screenplay and Hawkes’ performance never do.

Hawkes has earned some notoriety in recent years playing intimidating, but physically unassuming, men in Winter’s Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene. His gaunt and wiry body suggests a pushover, but with his eyes and his voice he can instill fear. As Mark, he has only his eyes and voice to work with, his body a stiff and contorted mess that spends a significant amount of time encased in an iron lung. He expresses all Mark’s anxiety and self-doubt (and there’s a lot of it) with nothing but a quavering voice and his face.

As Cheryl, Mark’s sex therapist and surrogate, Helen Hunt has to express enough confidence for the both of them. Cheryl is comfortable with her naked body and with being next to other naked bodies. She has an acute understanding of pleasure centers and preparing Mark properly to achieve sexual satisfaction. Hunt, with one early career exception, has never taken on roles that require her to bare her body. Now squarely in the throes of her middle-aged sagging body, she strips down and bares everything without a moment’s hesitation. She’s getting a lot of attention for the bravery it must have taken to do that, as if that itself is great acting. Hunt is very good in the role and I believed her every minute even if her Boston accent occasionally sounded phony, but Oscar talk strikes me as bluster.

I have to admire Lewin for treating the subject of sex with dignity and from the poise of a real adult. His characters engage in frank discussions of the act the mechanics involved. It was refreshing to hear this kind of dialogue in a film and to see sex depicted honestly, with blemishes and all. Praiseworthy as this is, however, I did feel that the film loses marks for failing to fully engage me on a gut level. It’s a nice movie and worth it, but I was not once riding alongside the characters and the emotions they were meant to be experiencing. The Sessions is a admirable, if not exactly moving.

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