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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Ben Lewin's exceptional film entitled "The Sessions" is a delightfully
provocative story, hinging on two people's growth through the most
fascinating, unusual and bizarre medical sexual relationship perhaps
ever depicted in a movie.
Helen Hunt will probably nab a second Oscar for her supporting role, Cheryl, played with absolute breathtaking compassion, grace, nuance and powerful subversion of every misogynistic caricature one could imagine. Her performance alone is reason enough to travel and see this. Through the years, one can see how Hunt chooses her films slowly, carefully and wisely, and it is absolutely clear to me why she wanted to do this- her role has the charm of a scorpion. She stings your intellect into cessation, enlivening your emotional world. Her words and relational caring are heartbreaking, even as she makes you laugh in delirium at an artistic bravery rarely seen among artists, especially actors. Perhaps among such luminaries like Brando, Day-Lewis, Hepburn, Streep. But not many others.
Surrounding the story's naturalistic, almost inchoate humor which tinges each scene of heart-wrenching beauty and meaning is one of the most talented actors working today: John Hawkes. He will most likely also grab an Oscar nomination. William H. Macy is an additional treasure; he turns in a subtle portrayal of a Catholic priest imbued with a genuine love of caring, desiring to help Hawkes' character thrive within the physical limitations of a polio virus survivor.
Within the film exists heavy religious imagery seamlessly woven between the narrative architecture: from Jewish baptism to Catholic iconography, philosophical meanderings to poetic waxing, the story never settles for being typical or mundane, but rather imbues itself with the soul of a saint striving to alleviate the bite and excoriating pain of life. Each actor helps paint this subtle, masterful and accomplished story.
Sadly, the harsh realities created by physical incapacity are a subject too often ignored, swept under the rug or just plain forgotten by Hollywood. Helen Hunt further impressed me in that one of her earlier and most critically acclaimed films, "The Waterdance" (1992, co-starring Eric Stoltz), also explores this subject: the sexual lives of the physically disabled. This is a topic about which she must care, for it keeps coming back to her work as if meant to be, as if she were a veritable physical vessel of love and understanding. She is, in fact, a conduit of grace.
Helen Hunt's performance is so simultaneously understated and transcendent this reviewer cannot help think, turned by the religious symbolism within the film, of the Biblical figural archetype of Mary Magdalene. Except, within this story, there is no prostitution (which, as we learn, is an allegory from which Hunt's Cheryl quickly disabuses both Hawkes and the audience.) Hunt rather represents a femininity scorned by her past's community, yet now finding meaningful help engendering sexual satisfaction, self-efficacy and life change among those in need of intimate therapy. If Mary Magdalene represented, for Christ, feminine companionship even amidst a "sinful" past, Helen Hunt is the arch through which Hawk passes on his way to a fuller, more whole world. In the end, Hawkes' character can be seen as a type of Christ figure, in some ways.
This film is like a beaming purity of emotion that roots itself in your soul. Sex is a primal energy- in leads us to relationship with another. This film is strengthened by that energy- but please don't see this as a cynical analysis of Hollywood once again using sex to sell. Rather, this film uses sex to show love, growth, spiritual transformation and physical healing. Lewin has crafted a veritable mirror to reflect beauty, connection and love back to even the most hardened, pessimistic, sardonic and misanthropic spirit or painful body. A film to seek out!
It's hard scoring this movie as I suppose its "worthiness" could
encourage a score of 9/10. I'll just call it an 85% kind of movie. Very
good, in any case.
This is the Hollywood version of the true story of Mark O'Brien (played by John Hawkes) a person who was struck with the dreaded polio disease as a small boy and is confined for most of every day in an iron lung and has practically no movement beneath his neck. He's like a quadriplegic, in other words.
As a middle aged adult, Mark's sexuality is kindled by a job offer. He seeks to have that satisfied but as someone who was afflicted with a severe disability as a small boy, his chances of success seem remote.
Mark is also a Catholic, and there are many conversations between him and his local priest, Father Brendan (played by William H. Macy). Mark's awakening interest in sex is troubling to Father Brendan, in a spiritual sense.
"The sessions" has a relentless focus on keeping the story moving forwards. There are moments of respite or dwelling on other aspects of the story, but it's pretty much all 'go'. No time is wasted in this movie...perhaps like in Mark's life, when he seeks to have a more normal human existence.
Helen Hunt plays Cheryl, a sex surrogate...and she does have a scene where she distinguishes her profession from that of a common, garden variety prostitute.
If you are prudish about sex or nudity, this will not be a good movie for you. Cheryl is seen is full frontal nudity whilst the movie is coy about Mark's body...nothing to see there. In some ways this movie is like those 1970s Australian free to air prime time soaps or comedies...lots of full frontal female nudity (but none of the same for the males, as in those Australian TV shows).
Despite all this candidness about the human body, it's not a Hollywood kind of movie in this respect...the sex in this movie is full of shame, embarrassment and despair...at least initially. No doubt some people will see the humour in this. This is a funny movie, despite the grim condition of the main character.
Performances in this movie are uniformly strong. Hawkes and Hunt give natural and authentic seeming portrayals of their real life characters. If these qualities are in fashion this year, I could see both of them at least being nominated for acting awards, if not actually winning them (they would be deserving winners in any case).
Cheryl's boyfriend in this movie, Rod (played by W. Earl Brown) seems to have the kind of thankless role reserved for women who play the partners of Hollywood action heroes, but is slightly more fleshed out than that, eventually.
Father Brendan does a very good Björn Borg impression at one point in this movie! Unintentionally though...or is it?
In the end credits, I was amused by the business name of the animal handlers in the movie..."Paws for effect".
Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes) is completely paralyzed, his body was
afflicted by severe polio at a young age and he lives inside an iron
lung that helps him breathe.However, he retains all his five senses,
and has a sixth one too. His face is very mobile and so is his penis.He
was born and raised a Catholic and goes to church regularly.He has a
picture of the Virgin Mary on his wall staring down at him and another
postcard of her stuck to his metallic home.He is a poet and a college
graduate.We see the video of his college graduation ceremony, he wheels
himself in on an automated gurney to a standing ovation, an event
covered by the local cable news.He is a small time celebrity with a big
That's the basic set up of this true story about a severely disabled man's quest to find sexual fulfilment. He falls in love with his nurse,Amanda, after firing one that he does not like.This one is beautiful, sensitive and funny.Amanda cares for him tenderly and laughs at his jokes.One day he tells her that he loves her.She is shocked, perhaps to be confronted by the knowledge that she loves him too, but having a relationship with a guy like him will be a burden too much to bear.She leaves.Mark is frustrated.He tells his pastor, Father Brendan that he wants to have sex.William H Macy, with a mane of flowing hair and darting blue eyes is not the average priest. He knows Mark is special and treats him as such.He tells him to go for it (off the record,of course), even though fornication outside marriage is not exactly kosher.
Mark hires a sex surrogate on the advise of his sex therapist.She arrives.He thinks he knows the drill and before they start tells her the money is on the table. But oops, she is not a prostitute.She is a sex surrogate therapist, we will soon know the difference.Cheryl played by Helen Hunt is a professional.Its her job to set peoples sex life straight.Not by talking down to a body on a couch but by getting down and dirty.It must be a fascinating profession, or maybe its just another job.We see her making notes at home after each session.She has a family, a husband who adores her for what she does, he calls her a saint.She has a teenaged son too.Whether he knows what his mom does for a living we do not know, but I suspect he has been told.His parents are grown up people in a very special way.
A little note on sex surrogate therapists is in order here.They are professionals who are trained to work with people having difficulties in handling the physical aspects of sexuality. They work in conjugation with psychotherapists and it does involve sex along with teaching the patients a lot of things about their bodies.Its a profession in decline because of the stigma attached to it and for fear of HIV.
The key difference between a prostitute and a sex surrogate as Cheryl explains to Mark is that there is a limit to the number of sessions that they can have while a prostitute will be happy to keep on servicing a satisfied client indefinitely, in exchange for money.What happens during these sessions between Mark and Cherly, I will not describe. Not that I am shy or anything, but why spoil the fun.I use the word fun judiciously, because its far too easy to get solemn about disabled people, and we tend to overdo the respect part, to their detriment.Suffice it to say that there is plenty of pain and plenty of emotions on this ride.The director Ben Lewin cross cuts the sex therapy session with confessions in the church and pulls the "Thou shall not fornicate" rug from under the feet of a good many holier than thou people.Mark tells his priest he wants to "know a woman in the Biblical sense".
Mark O'Brien at one point says he wants to have real sex because he wants to write about it.It will make a good story, because sex sells.If Ben Lewin made this film for the same reason, so be it.He tells a good story very well, supported by first class performances. The nudity in this film is strangely cold, but the warmth of emotions is genuine.The Sessions handles the issues surrounding sex, love and "sexual love" with a directness that is refreshing.There is not one shy character in this film.
Mark O'Brien must have been an amazing man, a poem he composes expressing his emotions is sublime and reason enough to watch this film.In his first confession he tells Father Brendan that while his caregivers are bathing him he gets erections and sometimes ejaculates. All he feels then is shame.This very shame has been dealt with in a searing film called Shame by Steve McQueen.In that film the protagonist was an alpha male, addicted to sex in a very unhealthy way,and all he felt at the end of every vigorous session was shame.
Mark overcomes his shame to experience joy within his broken body and that sets him free to even experience love.The Sessions takes a very unlikely story and tells it with a lot of compassion and humor, taking down religious dogma along the way.He gives us people who are deeply religious and recognize that if indeed God made the sexual apparatus we are born with, it must be to be for frequent use and not just to be pulled out of the cupboard to make babies.
Governments, acting under pressure from a liberal young electorate, are at war with religions, on matters of homosexuality and contraception. God-men are fast losing their grip on the bodies of their followers.Our minds must follow.
Watch The Sessions, its Hot! ( just like my red shoes..)
Published on my website mostlycinema.com
Sex surrogates in pop culture surfaced in mainstream media via legal
dramedy, Boston Legal five years ago. Philandering attorney Alan Shore
hired a surrogate for treatment in sexual anxiety. Aside from the fact
that taboos sell (just about anything); that minor story arc contained
more intellectual wit, cultural and legal references than any other
show at the time. Fast forward to 2012, this controversial and
unregulated profession enters the limelight once again.
Possibly inspired by 1996 documentary short "Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O'Brien", The Sessions is an independent drama written and directed by Ben Lewin. It is based on posthumous activist and poet; Mark O'Brien, and chronicles his friendship with sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen-Greene.
Story begins curiously at night with 38 year old Mark (John Hawkes), sound asleep in an iron lung (negative pressure ventilator)--the machine has kept him alive since a bad brush with polio when he was six. Apart from breathing problems; this cruel disease also left him paralyzed and denied of basic mobility. Yet Mark is anything but defeated, he copes with hired help who support a daily routine of journalistic work and visits to the neighborhood church. In the sense of psychological well- being, we learn that Mark has acquired self-depreciating humor and a gift for poetry. But beneath that veneer of playful intellect, there is a vulnerable and sensitive soul lingering.
As it turns out, Mark is two years shy of being a 40 year old virgin and "his penis speaks to him". He is enamored by the women drifting in and out of his life, but disability hinders sexual confidence. Lack of experience further perpetuates a vicious cycle of loneliness. Driven by his yearning for sexual and emotional intimacy, Mark consults Father Brenden (William H. Macy) on the repercussions of hiring a sex surrogate... "in the biblical sense".
The rest of this film depicts his journey towards life satisfaction beginning with Cheryl (Helen Hunt); and examines the irony of self- preservation through humorous conversations between Mark and Father Brenden. Helen Hunt gives a brave and dignified performance as Cheryl; breadwinner of her family, resolute in maintaining professional boundaries, concerned about Mark's growing affections for her, entangled by familial-emotional-ethical strings.
The Sessions capitalizes on stock sentimentalism; and sensationalistic dialog, at times running the risk of trivializing important questions raised by Mark O'Brien's repertoire of efforts as an activist for the disabled. The result is elegant entertainment with very fine acting by both leads, but borders on too much implicit thematic tricks to be taken seriously.
Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes) was struck down with polio at age six, causing loss of body movement other than with his head (although he could still feel everything fine). Living with an iron lung and with the help of numerous assistants, O'Brien was a poet who kept his sense of humour against all odds and in middle age decided he wanted to get laid. This is the part of O'Brien's life the movie focuses on, and in line with his subject's personal outlook, writer-director Ben Lewin wisely keeps the proceedings cheerful and optimistic. It's astonishingly explicit Helen Hunt's sexual surrogate bares and verbalises everything in her titular meetings with Mark yet the tenderness between the leads ensures it's never erotic or pervy; just very much for adults eyes and ears only. William H. Macy's modern-thinking priest is a hoot too.
Incredibly well done story. Unfortunately a true story, but I feel lucky to have known this person's life and feelings. Acting was truly superb! Full of surprises, good humor, sadness, great dialog and much more. I highly recommend this movie. It left me wanting to know much more about Mark O'Brien's life and family, that now I'm going to buy the autobiography of Mark O'Brien and the other book by his surrogate. It was especially emotional for me because my late disabled father had the exact same desires. He became completely disabled after living a rather full life, but unfortunately I was not able to understand his desires and help him fulfill them. DON'T MISS THIS MOVIE!!
The aspirant writer Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes) uses an iron lung since
the day he had poliomyelitis. Mark was raised by his religious family
and when he is a thirty-eight year-old man, he confesses to his priest
Brendan (William H. Macy) that he needs to have sex since he cannot
control his erections.
His therapist contact the "professional sex surrogate" Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt) that starts a sexual relationship with Mark, who grows after the experience.
"The Sessions" is an overrated and dramatic romance with the story of a man that is virgin at thirty-eight years old and decides to lose his virginity. His story is touching and apparently true.
However the real character of this film is Cheryl, who should have been better developed to explain how a suburban mother, married with an young teenage son, can be so disturbed and become a prostitute specialized in crippled people. In the end, "The Sessions" is an awful romance with great performances. My vote is five.
Title (Brazil): "As Sessões" ("The Sessions")
"The Sessions" is the true story of Mark O'Brien, a poet, a journalist
and...and paraplegic...who, in 1988, felt his time may be coming and
decides that he'd rather not die...a virgin.
Simple as that...and this incredibly moving film focuses on O'Brien and how he hires, on the blessing of his priest (played by William H. Macy), a sex surrogate named Cheryl Cohen Greene.
In the role of O'Brien, John Hawkes gives an unbelievable performance. Two years ago, Hawkes was nominated for his supporting role in "Winter's Bone" and he is almost guaranteed to be looking at a leading-Actor nomination as the man whose entire performance is based upon his facial expressions and delivery of words...which is, in a word, exquisite. Remember, he is playing a man who is all but paralyzed from the neck down.
As his surrogate, Helen Hunt, also an Oscar Winner for 1997's "As Good As it Gets," is also looking at her second nomination, baring all in the role of Greene, the woman who patiently helped this man achieve a level of manhood he never thought he would reach...along with ultimately transforming his life completely.
"The Sessions" is one of those films that you go into assuming it would be a film which would fill you with emotion stemming from pity, and where you walk out realizing that maybe it's you who might be more deserving of such a POV. O'Brien, in all his limitations, proved that love knows no bounds and that the rest of us should really just shut up and be thankful for what we have.
This film is filled with incredibly comedic moments, such an exuberant attitude, exceptional performances and enough heartwarming emotion for two films. An absolute must-see of 2012.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
THE SESSIONS (2012) **** John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy, Moon Bloodgood, Annika Marks, Adam Arkin, Rhea Perlman, W. Earl Brown, Robin Weigert, Blake Lindsley, Ming Lo, Rusty Schwimmer, Jennifer Kumiyama. Inspiring and life-affirming biopic about Mark O'Brein, a California based poet (Hawkes in an Oscar worthy turn) whose life-long challenge with polio (and using an iron lung to live) faces one more chronic obstacle: losing his virginity. Enter sex surrogate/therapist Hunt (equally deserving of an Academy Award and her best work since her previous winning) who comes to slowly realize just how her own personal life has pitfalls that are enlightened when her new charge adds some light to her drab life. Ben Lewin -who adapted the film from O'Brien's accounts of his encounters with the therapist - smartly allows his actors to make the characters real flesh and blood with warts-and-all dark humor and moments of true poignancy that never borders treacle nor does it do a disservice to the subject - empathy and love among all people -afflictions not-with-standing. One of the year's very best.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The Sessions is based on the life of journalist Mark O'Brien, adapting
his article 'On Seeing a Sex Surrogate' (1990). Mark (played by John
Hawkes) suffered from polio as a child. He is not so much paralysed but
has a muscle disorder from the neck down, which makes his body
immobile. At thirty-eight, he has spent his life either on a gurney
board, with a portable respirator, or inside an iron lung, a large
machine that provides him with oxygen. Simply, Mark is a virgin and due
to the immovability of his neck, he hasn't been able to see his
genitalia in thirty years. Embarrassed by his inexperience and his
slender body, Mark seeks help from one of his carers Vera (Moon
Bloodgood) and also a new priest in Father Brendan (William H. Macy) in
confronting the issue. He asks Father Brendan for a blessing to explore
his own sexuality, while Vera wheels him to meetings with a sex
surrogate. The surrogate is there to provide sexual activity with a
patient for therapeutic purposes. Mark's sex surrogate is Cheryl (Helen
Hunt), who is extremely dogmatic, telling him that they can only have
up to six sessions, and being extremely closed about her own personal
life. She's aware that Mark's anxiety stems from his personal demons,
including the death of his sister Karen at age seven. Cheryl's own life
is plagued by indecision: she is caught in a loveless marriage because
her husband is a disinterested layabout, sparking her admiration for
someone as intelligent as Mark.
This deceptively small film remains entirely selfless about its own significance, but subtly envisions the great socio-political change within Hollywood and America cinema itself. Under more a liberal administration, Hollywood's attitude to sex, the most dangerous word in the American vocabulary, has become increasingly flexible and open- minded. The films being produced are now more frank and less conservative about sex and sexuality. The significance of this cultural change is that it evokes an equally changing national identity. Americans are often caricatured as God-fearing conservatives, when more accurately America was a nation built on strict Christian values. Some parts of America have retained this conservative outlook, while others are pushing towards liberalism and broader cultural understanding of other races and religions. Films that speak more openly about sex and gender will help shape American values and identities. Recent films, like Easy A (2010) and Friends With Benefits (2011), have approached the subject of sex through comedy, which makes it more disarming and accessible for a broader audience. Earlier this year Shame turned the physicality of sex into a dramatic examination of psychological behaviour.
The Sessions does the same, but it is not as intimidating or bleak a film. The sex is upfront, both physical and in verbal descriptions, and the actors aren't concealed. But the film is surprisingly funny and hopeful, not dour, bravely suggesting that physical connections are a means of liberating the soul. Much of the film's sincerity and honesty is drawn from real life sources, which enhances its authenticity. The film's director, Polish-Australian Ben Lewin, was affected by polio too, which makes him understandably sympathetic to the story. But wisely, the film closely traces O'Brien's article so that it's never overinflated with implausible melodrama.
There's a level of gentility to the film, expressed most earnestly through the performances. They're wonderful. John Hawkes, an under-appreciated character actor, is the film's centrepiece and unfazed by the unconventional physicality of the part. He effortless draws O'Brien with a sense of humour and dry wit, but also projects a great amount of fear within this man as well. If you find yourself awkwardly tilting your head during any close up shots, listen to the pitch of his voice and the way that he expresses his hesitation and his sense of dread in confronting his body and his own self-worth. For O'Brien, sex must become more than a compulsive life event. It is a means of understanding that he is an ordinary human being. Mark reflected on this in his article: "Another lesson learned: Sex is a part of ordinary living, not an activity reserved for gods, goddesses, and rock stars." But this is also a man who must also be at peace with himself, replacing his emotions and guilt over his sister Karen with a new form of intimacy.
The complexity of this role is further echoed in its relationship to Hunt's work too. Her dialogue has a different set of rhythms. Whereas Mark is nervous and unassured, Cheryl is direct and rigid in her actions and procedures. She is also very delicate and poised around her patients, which is a means of hiding her personal life. A once maligned actress, Helen Hunt eases into this role with such confidence and unflinching maturity, allowing the subtleties and minute features of her character to seem like the most naturalistic features of a real person. Her increasing attachment to Mark, contrasted by her unsatisfying home life and relationships, is convincing. Macy's role is fascinating too. Though he is very funny, he is not just for comic relief. He compliments the notion that people must break out of their generic roles if they are to find self-satisfaction. He describes Mark at the end of the film as "a dynamic voice in a paralysed body", but each of the three characters could initially be described like that. They help each other realise that people can be as complete and as mentally powerful as they are in any physical action. It's a lesson for Hollywood itself too.
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