THE SESSIONS Review

The Sessions is certainly somewhat of a more acquired taste of a film in that it requires a sense of maturity about it that will not carry over with large amounts of people my age among their peers. Yet, sitting in a nearly empty theater with two couples that were 50+ and one other likely devoted film lover I was delivered a film that was both real and slightly sentimental, but mostly genuine. It is a quick film to behold, with a tone that matches its flighty pacing. The subject matter is a little tough to explain without getting an odd look as to why this would be intriguing. First, because it is in fact one of those movies based on a true story that has a physically handicapped lead overcoming some obstacle to prove to himself and everyone else that just because he is different doesn't necessarily mean he deserves to be looked down on. The magic of this film though is naturally that hill our main character, Mark O'Brien, is trying to climb but also the way in which director (and polio survivor) Ben Lewin handles the subject matter. Making this not just a small indie drama but also a very funny film that doesn't wallow in the challenges of Mark's disability but instead covers that with a sense of humor (as Mark does) used in such a way that it is a type of survival mechanism helping him as a person with polio and us as an audience deal with what is ultimately a very difficult, and emotional situation. Each of the principal actors here deliver great performances that are each worthy of nominations but more importantly they lift what could have been a typical, over-sentimental story to something completely opposite. Something fresh and truthful we've not seen committed to screen before.

Amanda (Annika Marks) takes care of Mr. O'Brien to
an extent feelings become involved.
We first meet Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes) as he lays in his iron lung and is confined to a gurney otherwise for the majority of each day. He requires several caretakers each of which he judges by the way they look at him and seem to come to a verdict on him rather than the way they treat him. The irony is he realizes this trait in himself and feels bad about it. He feels bad about everything he feels when it comes to the self-pity that comes along with the problems of his disease. In feeling guilty for feeling sorry Mark turns to the local priest in long bouts of confession. Mark is a devout catholic and has been since he was a boy. He feels a need to know there is purpose in his life becoming what it has and would find it completely unfathomable not to have an all-knowing being to blame his condition on. As Father Brendan William H. Macy is a welcome presence and provides a nice, sturdy and spiritual shoulder for Mark to rely on in confirming that what his hopes, aspirations, and thoughts might be validated by the faith he finds so important to his life. After experiencing real connection, where emotions were brought into the equation with his attractive caretaker Amanda (Annika Marks) where he ends up being disappointed by the young woman's ability to reciprocate his feelings Mark struggles with the desire to lose his virginity, but moreso to prove to himself that he could meet the needs of a woman physically as well as emotionally if he were to ever have a real, authentic relationship. Enter sex surrogate Cheryl (Helen Hunt) whose role is not simply to provide a sexual release for her client but also to teach them how to work with and ultimately overcome their disabilities.

Cheryl (Helen Hunt) helps Mark (John Hawkes) overcome
his fears about sex in The Sessions.
As Cheryl, Hunt is a revelation. I have not seen much of Hunt's work as she hasn't really appeared in anything since What Women Want that has been very high profile. There have of course been her directorial effort and a few roles in smaller films but I was too young to get caught up in Mad About You and Twister has been relegated to my childhood VHS memories. To finally see the actress in a brave and daring role makes it hard to see how anything that came before might even matter as much. She bares it all both physically and emotionally in a way that puts so much trust in the story being told it is hard to ignore how special she must have felt this role to be. It is a strange occupation, and more than watching her try to help Mark with his sexual issues it is interesting to see how a woman in such a position deals with that choice and how it affects her life outside of it. On top of this aspect it is her character that also exists as the core emotional center of the film. As much as Mark is our protagonist, and as great and committed a performance as John Hawkes gives, it is Hunt who transforms what could have been a laughable scenario when presented to others into something not weird at all. As a film completely about sex it is hard for it not to be dismissed as erotic or garner crazy reactions from the same people who dismiss talking to their children about sex, it is refreshing to see a movie approach the subject so frankly and treat it for what it is. It is a movie that is not sexy in as many ways as it is about intimacy and that private act between two people. It is a decidedly adult film that requests you grow up and demands you feel what these characters are going through for they are what makes the film live up to the hype it has received.

William H. Macy as Father Brendan. 
Where the film lags and where I had the most trouble with getting into it was in the kind of standard way it was produced. The way the story is cultivated could not have been better for the story that it is telling, but the way in which the characters and the atmosphere are physically presented through the camera lends itself to something closer to a TV-movie rather than an inventively shot indie film. I haven't seen any previous work of director Lewin's seeing as it has been quite a while since he has come out with anything and that might be why his style as a director seems to be the least concentrated and thought out aspect here. Granted, this is a simple and straightforward story and to document it that way only makes sense. I can even appreciate the subtle ways in which the time period is presented here rather than having known style staples or devices show up in every scene. There was still something artistic missing about the whole experience and though it may sound like a rather petty complaint, I could feel it as the movie continued to play and the characters continued to captivate with little to hold on to outside of their dialogue and situation. Putting this aside though, The Sessions is truly a charming little film, a joy to watch and a wonderful experience where we get to know a man who believes he has been cursed by God and doesn't deserve the satisfactions of physical pleasures but learns he is not necessarily paying for anything he did wrong with his disease, but is simply been given the trust he is strong enough to overcome such a challenge. And in more ways than one, Mark O'Brien does in fact meet that challenge.