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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
It must be an agonising existence for people in Mark O'Brien's
situation, to have the full sensations of touch and feel but not the
ability to utilise them in any way. Instead they are at the mercy of an
assistant 24/7, and should these helpers slip away or be inattentive
for even a second, they are further than helpless. When one is in this
position the torture may be more than just physical; the mental toll of
endless pleases and thank yous day in and day out must strip away all
pretenses of dignity. Mark recounts, that along with a strong dosage of
his Catholic upbringing, this has led to a crippling shame about his
naked body and virginity in his 30s. So for all the platitudes in the
opening of footage of a young Mark, beaming and bouncing and about to
be struck with a lifelong debilitating condition, for all the singing
of courage and perseverance in the face of hardship, it means squat.
John Hawkes plays Mark O'Brien in a role that is oral as it is physical. We sense that those who are stuck in an iron lung for a lifetime must fiercely over-compensate in another area in order to avoid completely sinking into self-pity, so he does so through humour. This is a relatively common humanising device seen in these types of biopics about people with disabilities - when he bitches and moans in his narration about the less than stellar level of care from his dumpy assistant, it shows us that his character is just like any other person, and not some angelic, persevering figure set up for fetishisation. Hawkes also seems to be soberly aware of the power-imbalance of the relationship, which is a useful and sometimes regretful fact that he must confront at times. The first time he falls in love with Amanda, one of his carers, and the first time he utters those fateful three words to her, is voiced as a conscious effort to avoid sounding pitiful and to implore her to look past his condition. But Hawkes is also good enough to make the statement doubtful within himself, and we can see a lifetime of conflict and loneliness in his eyes. Marks' character is airy and mostly unexplained, but her reaction to this confession is a moment of such great subtlety. She returns the same smile that she has worn genuinely for the duration of their relationship, and then her face creases up in regret as she realises what he is doing and how she cannot say the same with his amount of conviction.
But if Lewin can tap into the naturally humorous outlook of Mark then he overextends and tries to force this into other situations. Mark is wheeled into other homes and begins his interviews concerning how those with disabilities navigate the already tricky boundaries of sex and adulthood. What should be serious anecdotes are given the mockumentary treatment, the frankness of the dialogue hanging in the awkward silence as Vera averts her glance. You half expect the camera to tremble a touch more and slightly zoom out. This insulting treatment from Lewin seeks to create embarrassment where there is none, and only reaffirms the sneaking suspicion that for every Mark O'Brien that is given star treatment there are other minorities that can be freely thrown under the bus.
And to assist this process the film takes several liberal leaps where the extent of Mark's religious guilt and self-blame is narrated back to us via Cheryl's post-session notes. Because the blossoming romance is chiefly internalised and implied off-screen, its impact is softened. But it is the ideal that is problematic in itself. Here is what Mark writes himself, in the article that much of the film is based upon: "In re-reading what I originally wrote, and my old journal entries from the time, I've been struck by how optimistic I was, imagining that my experience with Cheryl had changed my life." And yet Lewin has completely gone against this feeling, and presented what is akin to an adolescent fantasy, where Mark extrapolates his first sexual experiences into a revelatory and life-changing moment and something that builds a cherished relationship. No matter how good Hawkes and Hunt might be, the brief connection is based on naivety taken completely seriously, and the end result is something entirely removed from reality. So in the end it is Macy's Father Brendan that feels the most genuine. He has an acute awareness of the priest's role, but also radiates kindness, goodwill, and most importantly of all, common sense.
Never before have I heard about a sex therapist until I saw this film.
It was an interesting concept and surprisingly based on a true story.
The story of a man who lives his life inside an iron lung, he wants to know how it feels to lose his virginity. So with a sex therapist, he gets the experience of a lifetime.
This film is not intended for the family, as there is nudity, profanity and scenes of sexual pleasure. However, the film does have wonderful comedy relief, as is needed.
I especially enjoyed seeing William H. Macy as the priest. His acting has improved dramatically since the early 2000s. And Helen Hunt was amazing as well, not including the full body nudity. For her age, she looked amazing.
Fearless and raw performances from John Hawkes and Helen Hunt in the
true story of a 38 year old man who has spent most of his life in an
iron lung due to polio and enlists the guidance of a priest and the
help of a sex surrogate in order to lose his virginity.
This is a bittersweet drama with interesting and very real feeling characters. The performance's are raw and personal while also funny, tender and touching. John Hawkes is simply brilliant as Mark O'Brien, his portrayal courageous and reminiscent of Daniel Day-Lewis in 'My Left Foot' yes he's that good.
The acting across the board is fantastic though. Helen Hunt received an Oscar nomination and William H. Macy is always a treat to watch, here he plays Father Brendan, a laid back priest who (whether he realizes it or not) ends up living vicariously through Mark, anticipating the ongoing stories of 'the sessions'. I loved the relationship between these two.
If I'm honest I had trouble believing the love angle this took though, not because I didn't feel it was possible but because the film failed to deliver much of a lead up especially on the side of Cheryl who just suddenly loved him. 1/29/16
The struggle of personal enrichment in life is a confusing path for
many people. It really takes concentration and self-control in the
individual to think about what they want and what moves them to have
this desire. This particular journey is more difficult for others who
have specific limitations. When a person has a healthy and able body,
they have the power to do anything they set themselves and minds to.
For people who have physical disabilities, this power is capped off
depending on where their disability lies. For people with Poliomyelitis
or Polio for short, their limitations lies in the physical reality.
Every sensory and mental activity remains unchanged, but the strength
to move certain muscles have vanished. In today's time, doctors have
helped in the prevention of this life changing disease and in most
cases things end up fine. However, there are still people that become
infected and lose the required muscle control to function normally.
This is the story of man with that disease who tested his destiny.
Based on an article written by Mark O'Brien and adapted by Ben Lewin as writer/director to this film, this biopic tells the emotional journey of man just looking to achieve a small accomplishment. Renowned poet Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes - Identity (2003) and American Gangster (2007)) has been a polio victim since he was six years old. Paralyzed from the neck down, living in an iron lung machine day-in-day-out, and tired of caretakers who look at him like he's a chore, decides one day that it's time for a change. The biggest change he wants is to lose his virginity. Seeking advice he goes to Father Brendan (William H. Macy) to see what he should do. At first he thinks he's onto something when his new attendee Amanda (Annika Marks) really enjoys his company, but it turns out he got too attached. Making calls he's given contact information to Cheryl (Helen Hunt - What Women Want (2000)), a professional sex surrogate and therapist Vera (Moon Bloodgood).
Scriptwise, writer/director Ben Lewin has created such touching story. Considering the last script he was ever credited for was back in 1994, that's very impressive. Most of the time when writers and directors have that long of a hiatus, they are no longer in touch with what is currently trending with contemporary audiences when they return. Each lead and main supporting character are exceptionally developed and charming simultaneously. John Hawkes as Mark O'Brien sounds feeble but he does have an energetic spirit for a man who can only move his head. He's even got a bit of a foul mouth. William H. Macy as Father Brendan is comical because of his profession and trying to accept O'Brien's situation at the same time. How many times do priests have to listen to that kind of a story - one that goes against the teachings of god? Even Moon Bloodgood's role that is initially not the most talkative to O'Brien warms up to him.
Helen Hunt as O'Brien's surrogate is astounding. To play such a revealing role (and at being close to 50 at the time) is extremely courageous. Aside from her profession though, she makes her role very appealing through her personality and analytical skills too. Her chemistry with Hawkes is quirky at first but does develop into a touching connection with each other. The only problem in Lewin's script is that Hunt's role doesn't make a lot of sense, pertaining to her life. For her profession, one would think she would live solo, but no. She has a husband (Adam Arkin) who is aware of what she does and isn't very concerned and also has a son (not mentioned if he knows). It's a bit odd to be honest. Controversial indeed. How does a family stick together through that,...beats me. This is it though. What's also great about Lewin's writing is that he also covers how and why getting too attached to someone can be harmful. One can be so caught up in it that they forget it's business.
This is why situations like these are difficult to handle. An experience like that is so personal that realizing that it's not real can be very destructive to one's self esteem. The camera-work by Geoffrey Simpson (Life (1999)) was well done. Every scene was brightly lit and completely displays to its audience what they should be seeing. This is from the point of where viewers are introduced to O'Brien in the iron lung, to his travels, where people take of him and when he spends time with others. The more sensual scenes between Hawke and Hunt are pretty graphic but much is hidden too. The music is another step up. Composer Marco Beltrami worked on this project and although his score is much shorter in entirety, it is nothing like his other prior works. Beltrami has a main theme and instead of relying on full orchestra, he calls upon plucking cellos, piano and some synth soundscape. Beltrami is usually bombast in his horror scores but this is a complete 180 change that should be heard.
Helen Hunt's character is really the only one who has a strange lifestyle throughout the film, which makes it questionable but other than this, all characters (including hers) are highly developed. Every scene is well lit, the script is remarkably touching, the actors all perform well and the music by usual horror composer Marco Beltrami demonstrates his capability that he can create music for other genres as well with a very simplistic yet emotional score.
Given the circumstances of the man who is the center of this film, I'm not sure how I would handle life, let alone the issues presented. He has been given a death sentence but has managed to overcome life in an iron lung and all the implications of that. He has no self-mobiity. He nearly dies because the technology is compromised while he sleeps. Still, he has incredible optimism. He does have one wish and it's uncomfortable to discuss, even for him. He approaches his priest, William Macy, to say he wants to have sex with a woman. He gets his wish in the form of a sex therapist with whom he develops an emotional (and sexual) relationship. She is compassionate, though challenged by his physical limitations and his hesitancy and embarrassment. She persists, even though her husband begins to resent her affection for this guy. It turns into a kind of love affair. This prurient sounding plot is made engaging by the wonderful performances of its two principles. At no time is the man portrayed as pathetic. He is funny and believable. While humor is employed, it is never cheap or gratuitous. There are some wonderful supporting roles as well. It's a one-of-a-kind effort.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This film was based in the true story of journalist Mike O'Brien. I've
never heard of him before, but fine. He passed through an interesting
part on his life, which not coincidentally is the one explored in the
I personally found the theme interesting: Never thought in life on the point of view of a polio victim, obviously, but somehow his stage/phase of life he goes through is quite similar to what we pass through the adolescence, with all the 'sex' pressure and the anxiety to lose the virginity. This reference became clear to me when he implied that he don't wanted to be an adult. In fact, the only time he really lived until his 'sexual experience' was his childhood, when he still could do what everyone did.
The thing that i really bothered in this film is that it is way too overly dramatized and long. It has pointless scenes, such as the Asian girl talking to the Asian guy. It served to no purpose to the film other than turn it unnecessarily longer.
The performances in this film are by far the strongest point of this film, but i don't think that neither of the actors did their best. Good acting, nothing more. Cinematography and soundtrack are really generic, which of course don't helps in my evaluation.
Overall, a pretty average film which don't adds too much to the table. It has a provocative theme, but i am aware that it wasn't the first to depict a physical deficient protagonist. 6.3/10
Review: I thought that this was quite a heart warming movie with great
acting by John Hawkes who plays paralysed man who is seeking to lose is
virginity. All of the cast put in great performances and the director
done a great job with putting this true story together. It is a deep
insight into how it feels to be disabled with sexual intentions. Before
I watched the film, I didn't have a clue what it was about so I was
surprised with the outcome. The writer done well to mix the film up
with comedy and emotion which made the film even more enjoyable. As an
independent movie, I'm afraid that its going to be just another one of
those films that goes under the radar. Enjoyable!
Round-Up: William H. Macy and Helen Hunt used to be in quite a lot of movies earlier on in this decade, but they have seemed to slow down nowadays and they only come out of the woodwork when a special film comes along. Before watching this movie, I didn't know of the service that Helen Hunt provides and I'm sure that it will raise a few eyebrows. I also liked the characters that played the helpers, who draw you to care about there job as well. This is a touching story which will leave you feeling emotional.
Budget: $1million Worldwide Gross: $9million
I recommend this movie to people who like there deep dramas about the disabled. 6/10
THE SESSIONS (dir. Ben Lewin) This tasteful and award winning film
concerns a man, dependent on an iron lung and paralyzed by polio, who
seeks out a sexual surrogate for his first sexual experience. Although
the subject is sex, the actual theme of the film is the analysis of
tenderness and compassion.
Helen Hunt plays the surrogate, and she is given the difficult task of establishing the difference between a sexual surrogate and a prostitute, and she could not have been more successful. John Hawkes is superb as a man with normal feelings and desires who just happens to be trapped in a body that cannot move.
However, William H. Macy plays a Catholic priest who advises the quadriplegic that he should, 'Go for it, and God will hand you a pass'. Although Macy delivers an affable and congenial performance, I think that it's wishful thinking to believe that the narrow-minded restrictions of Catholicism would allow such latitude. Worth A Look
The Sessions is a bizarre example of when, if a film was just about
what the title is referring to, then it would be much, much better. For
some reason, The Sessions wants to be a life story, but the actual
'sessions' scenes are its only strengths. There's a redundant abundance
of characters when the only interesting relationship is between John
Hawkes' Mark and Helen Hunt's Cheryl. William H. Macy is one of my
favourite actors, but his priest character is a joke and is used as a
confusing framing device for exposition and provides completely
pointless padding. Along with being rushed and sentimental, the film
has a very forced sense of humour, with sarcastic remarks from the
protagonist that feel pandering rather than charming. Hawkes can be
just as forced, but perhaps its the fault of the script, he sounds like
Sean Penn's Harvey Milk doing one-liners. However, Helen Hunt is
absolutely terrific with a subtle and complex character played
remarkably well. The film is at its best when focused on the sessions
themselves. There's some very interesting character moments and it's
sometimes even profound on views on sex. Granted, despite its flaws, it
is a likable film, just one that should have been approached very
differently, rather than like Forrest Gump.
Disabled people having sex isn't a topic so much tiptoed around as
completely ignored by well, pretty much everyone. So at the very
least, Ben Lewin's "The Sessions" has to be applauded for shattering
taboos. With an outstanding performance from John Hawkes and a script
that takes a brazen (i.e. open) approach to sex, "The Sessions" will at
least win over hearts if not awards bodies.
Hawkes plays Mark O'Brien, a role that if played by any actor with actual name recognition would be forecast as an Oscar favorite. Independent film connoisseurs know him well, and it is they who will appreciate how completely different Mark is compared to most of Hawkes' body of work, namely that Mark has a sense of humor. But Hawkes is such a natural that those who don't know him well won't find anything extraordinary about his performance. And what a shame.
O'Brien was a real-life writer and poet (and the previous subject of an Oscar-winning documentary short film) who was unable to move anything below the neck due to polio and generally restricted to an iron lung apparatus. He wrote about his experience with a sex surrogate in an actual, published article and died a few years later in 1999. At the age of 36, after falling for one of his caretakers only to be spurned, he determined to lose his virginity.
In the film, O'Brien is put in touch with a sex therapist/surrogate named Cheryl (Helen Hunt) who can legally assist him in a series of no more than six two-hour sessions to achieve his sexual goals. With the blessing of his priest (William H. Macy), O'Brien embarks on this life- changing journey.
Lewin and Hawkes construct a truly believable and lovable character in Mark, someone with a unique sense of humor and world view. At the same time, he's not just some quirky optimist meant to inspire us into not taking our own lives for granted; he's complicated and has deep- seated emotional issues.
Having not read O'Brien's piece, it's difficult to say how much in the film is result of Lewin expounding upon his own theories about him, but his close connection to Catholicism conveniently adds a moral dimension to the film that adds more perspective to the situation rather than attempt some kind of "balance" to the "debate." (Personally, O'Brien shouldn't feel any moral reprehension, but that was who we was.)
It gets sticky as far as truth especially with regards to Hunt's Cheryl. Hunt's calm demeanor really makes the session scenes work, but it's when she starts to develop some kind of emotional connection to Mark that things start to feel more out of the fiction world of, say, the rom-com.
If you've watched a single rom-com, you're well aware that two people engaging in sexual activities are 99 percent likely to fall for each other, regardless of what they say or do, but you'd expect something different from "The Sessions." It doesn't quite go there, but it flirts with that line more than it should considering Cheryl does this for a living and you'd expect she could keep things professional or she wouldn't be doing it.
Other than Hunt's wickedly distracting attempt at a Boston accent, it's a joy to see the Oscar winner on screen again, or at least in a relevant film. Cheryl's a terrific and unique role that requires a brave actress, which Hunt clearly is.
Lewin does his best work with the intimacy of the subject matter. The approach he takes to sex strips it of all its Hollywood armor, so to speak. He doesn't over-romanticize it or downplay it or tiptoe around it. If he did, the film would probably not work, but viewers who have any degree of sexual experience should identify with the raw and open approach as far a language and even nudity.
Where he struggles slightly, however, is in creating a viewing guide to his own movie as the movie is going on. The film opens with a lot of voice-over narration from Mark, which feels appropriate and quite welcome given that he's a writer by trade, but as the sessions pick up, we shift to a more objective, case study perspective of him capped off by countless scenes in which Cheryl speaks into a tape recorder and dissects him psychologically, which in the context of the film, is its subtext. It's an awfully heavy-handed move that definitely holds the film back from achieving a powerful emotional climax (phrasing regretted, but unavoidable).
Also, for being set in the late '80s/early '90s, there doesn't appear to be a period feel to the movie at all despite a lack of computer technology, which calls into question Lewin's eye for detail. It's a small gripe, but considering the power of the subject matter and the talent on screen, "The Sessions" could have been something truly special with a bit more care and filmmaking talent. Nevertheless, it's a highly recommendable film that's a hundred times less dreadful (emotionally speaking) than so many other films about quadriplegics and other physically disabled characters.
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