The Sessions (2012)
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John Hawkes (Winter's Bone, Martha Marcy May Marlene) has been gathering accolades for his performance in The Sessions and with good reason. He not only delivers on the physical demands of such a role but he manages to encapsulate the emotions of a man with a broken body but a good heart. It's an impressive performance that should see him at least receive an Oscar nomination come next years awards. Hawkes is almost matched by Helen Hunt. She bares all in a brave role that depicts a woman struggling with her job and her emotions. These two performances are some of the best (so far) this year. William H. Macy also gives a good performance as a likable priest that O'Brien is able to confide in.
As a whole, the film doesn't shy away from much. The sex "therapy" sessions are depicted as realistically as possible and are both funny and touching (no pun intended). Ben Lewin's direction is simple yet it manages to adequately depict O'Brien's world without sensationalizing it. It's an all round simple tale that is well told. This is an adult drama that will make you laugh, cry and look more positively at your own life. There aren't many films that do that these days.
**** (out of 4)
Terrific adult drama about Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes), a man who has been living in an iron lung since the age of six due to polio. At the age of 38 he confides to his priest (William H. Macy) that he wants to know the touch of a woman so he hires a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt). With a story like this there are just so many ways that it could have failed but writer-director Ben Lewin does a terrific job as do to the leads and in the end THE SESSIONS really turns into a touching movie. I really wasn't sure what to expect going in but this actually turned out to be a terrific character study through a group of sex sessions, which at first seemed like a far-fetched idea until you learn that it's actually based on a real guy and on the article he wrote. What makes the film work so well is that both characters are fully formed and it's especially important when it comes to O'Brien since we're going on this journey with his as he tries to deal with his disease and the physical limitations he has. The performance from Hawkes is so remarkable because he has to act pretty much just using his head. Since the majority of the film has him in the lung or under the covers, we mainly just see his face and hear his voice and the way Hawkes builds this character and his emotions is just something truly incredible to watch. It also helps that Hunt is so great in her role as she's pretty much playing the guy's teacher, lover and friend. The compassion she brings to the role is certainly something special and the chemistry between the two hits on all the right marks. Macy is also excellent as the priest bringing in some needed humor. Moon Bloodgood, Adam Arkin and Annika Marks are also great in their supporting parts. THE SESSIONS boils down to being a story about something with physical limitations and I'd say it's one of the better films to come from this sub-genre. The movie is funny but it's also incredibly touching as these two people slowly come together over a group of sessions. This is certainly a movie for adults as there's no trickery in the story but instead it just plays out in a mature fashion.
This pleasure changing experiment will have to be done with the help of a professional sex surrogate and this lady is a strong and tough wife and mother who makes her living helping others enter Cheryl(in a strong and direct turn from Helen Hunt)who can make everything appear like she's the plain Jane girl from next door. Slowly but surely these encounters or sessions between her and Mark produce results of feeling, relaxation, mind changing, and comfort, all before they finally approach the pleasure point! Along the way this picture is told with honesty and much of the scenes are humor mixed with blunt and brash serious feel of a man being set free toward a new feeling of pleasure freedom finally! Overall the "Sessions" is a film of journey and it shows how the discovery of sexual pleasure can bring out emotional freedom that's touching and memorable even though the scenes are brash with skin and memorable and educational with thought. This film is a real inspirational winner and the chemistry between Helen Hunt and John Hawkes is in top notch form as director Ben Lewin made a real and true winner.
There needs to be another character, the big-shot Hollywood producer who says "THIS is how you make a movie!" It's a shoddy job of adapting a person's life to the silver screen, and although it pretends to pull no punches (full-frontal nudity) it pulls all the punches. There's no serious drama; It's a comedic attempt at a tragedy.
Notable in it though, are John Hawkes' and Helen Hunt's performances which are the most compelling bits of emotional realism. In other scenes Hawkes is usually being sarcastic and making jokes, but with a sense of humor that relies on him being seriously disabled, so to say the humor isn't great, but the content (the fact that his life sucks) makes it amenable because you're glad he's upbeat.
Scenes with William H. Macy are particularly culpable of this pathetic comedy. Everything about the dialogue between the two is as natural as Macy's hairdo. Seriously look at Macy's hair, it's so stupid, I mean for a goshdarn priest; There has never been a priest with a hairdo like that. It may seem like I'm nit-picking here, but it's so absurd it angers me, and I'm not usually one to notice the cosmetic aspects of movies. Everything about their conversations feels contrived in order to convey Hawkes' rosy demeanor about the whole thing and justify his buying a prostitute.
All that said, the actual story behind the movie is a compelling reason to see it despite everything the director, writer and producer do to counteract its true appeal to human nature. And the acting by Helen Hunt and John Hawkes is moving. This could have been a great movie, but it just misses on so many levels.
In 1990, O'Brien had an article published: "On Seeking a Sex Surrogate". It detailed his desire to overcome the obstacles and experience a sexual relationship. He did so by working with Cheryl Cohen Greene, a Berkeley based sex surrogate ... also a wife and mother of two. This is the very touching story of how Cheryl (played here by Helen Hunt) worked with O'Brien (played by John Hawkes) to overcome his fear and anxiety. These sessions occurred after O'Brien "cleared" his plan with his Catholic priest (William H Macy).
This story is as frank and honest as you might expect, and it avoids sinking into Hollywood sentimentality for the sake of the story. The truth is plenty powerful. O'Brien's caregivers are played progressively by Rusty Schwimmer, Annika Marla and Moon Bloodgood. Cheryl's husband is played by Alan Arkin and Robin Weigert plays Susan, the woman with whom O'Brien had a loving relationship with until his death in 1999.
There are some similarities to the wonderful film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, but this story and these characters are much more accessible to the viewer. These are people with whom we care about and connect. It's a vivid reminder that living a full life regardless of one's constraints should always be the goal. Incidentally, Cheryl still works as a surrogate these days ... at age 68.