Friday, November 16, 2012

The Sessions (***)

Written and Directed by Ben Lewin


The Sessions is a very optimistic, good-natured film about some very dark, adult themes. It's one thing to be a virgin when you're over 40 (as Judd Apatow has so excellently shown us already), but it's another thing to be a virgin at 40+ and have polio. Most people don't like to think about the terribly ill, but even the few that do will rarely want to think about that part of the equation. The Sessions is very frank, honest and compelling, mostly because it has a great character in its central role, but also because it is totally unafraid to tackle an issue most people would rather not think about: what happens when an incredibly crippled person wants to experience sex and love?

The film focuses on Mark O'Brien (the always wonderful John Hawkes), a middle-aged poet who lives in an iron lung because of polio he contracted when he was 6-year-old. He's still able to write his poetry and answer phone calls, but all the other basic life functions (eating/drinking, taking a bath, overall getting around) are done with the help of an assistant - of which his sarcastic, occasionally irascible attitude leads him to go through very many. But despite this, Mark has been very successful in his life. He graduated from a prestigious university, gained significant success as a poet, but there is one thing that he has never experienced that has seemed almost impossible: he's never had a woman fall in love with him.

Through various channels, Mark is commissioned to write an article about disabled peoples and love. Through various research, and with the help of his new, awkward but surprisingly warm assistant, Vera (Moon Bloodgood), Mark learns of the existence of "Sex Surrogates". These surrogates are commissioned to help those who may have trouble experiencing the act of sex or learning its appeal. Despite tepid fear, Mark agrees to meet one of the surrogates and go through with the deed that has been denied to him his whole life. His particular surrogate is named Cheryl (Helen Hunt), a wife and mother, who's matter-of-fact way of business breaks quickly through Mark's obvious nervousness and surprisingly into his heart.

There's one beat throughout The Sessions the breaks what could have been a good-feeling but ultimately monotonous film, and it is the subplot of Mark's faith. Devoutly Catholic (he explains, "It would seem particularly cruel to not have someone to blame for this"), he seeks daily guidance from his church's priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy), who has great sympathy for Mark's plight, but also has great love for Mark as a person. When Mark asks Father Brendan about seeing the surrogate and breaking the covenant of sex without marriage, Brendan thinks long and hard before stating, "In my heart, I feel like he'll give you a free pass on this one". A very un-Catholic viewpoint, but terrific advice as a friend.

To really buy into this movie, you have to believe in a world where an attractive woman may fall in love with her client, and you also have to believe in a Catholic priest who smokes and walks around outside the church wearing a bandana and carrying a six pack. I took this leap of faith (no pun intended) because that makes the film a more enjoyable experience, and this movie made me want to believe it. Now, The Sessions is based on a true story, but it is very "movie". The contrast between the film's sunny but solemn tone and it's stark dealings with the sex between Cheryl and Mark is effective. Mark's story is not one of vile inner demons a la My Left Foot. Mark O'Brien was, by all accounts, a very funny and personable person and at the very least, it captures the spirit of Mark O'Brien the character almost splendidly.

The film was written and directed by Ben Lewin, who has himself dealt with polio. I don't know how much of Lewis' own experience he placed into the film or if the film is any better because of what Lewin has dealt with. I just know that Lewin told the story with a fantastic attention to detail and a soft delicacy that helps the audience realize that while Mark was terribly handicapped, disabled people never stop believing that it's possible to do the things that everyone else can do. I will admit that the love story between Mark and Cheryl did not totally sway me, even though I found their relationship imminently watchable. It's Mark's journey, from virgin to a man able to experience reciprocated love, that really makes The Sessions such a wonderful watch.

John Hawkes and Helen Hunt are very likely to get Oscar nominations for their work here, and I have no problem with that. It's very difficult to take a relationship like this and make it work, but the two of them are able to do it with nothing more than their charm. Hawkes, in particular, continues to show why he is quickly becoming the industry's best character actors, about ready to make the Philip Seymour Hoffman/Paul Giamatti-like jump to "lead character actor". But I thought The Sessions best moments come with Hawkes and Macy, whose Father Brendan is one of the most splendid screen characters I've seen this year. There's no sex in that part of the story, so it will get overlooked, but it's that segment that keeps the film balanced and gives it its actual heart.

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