Review: The Sessions (2012)

The Sessions


Ben Lewin
Ben Lewin (Article: Mark O’Brien)
95 min.
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, Tobias Forrest, Jarrod Bailey
MPAA Rating
R for strong sexuality including graphic nudity and frank dialogue.

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Human needs and desires are not dislodged when one is disabled. The Sessions highlights the struggles of an iron lung-bound journalist who wants to lose his virginity.

John Hawkes steps away from the creeps and villains he’s been playing of late and takes on the role of Mark O’Brien with subtle ferocity. Confined to an iron lung, Mark has spent much of his short life looking at the world through the eyes of the handicapped, relying entirely on the assistance of aid workers who must not only handle his infirmaty, but act as surrogate emotional conduits. Mark is jovial, frequently downplaying his disability and disarming those around him and the audience in tandem with his jocularity.

Having spent very little time worrying about his own personal pleasure, Mark decides one day that he wants to have sex for the first time. His staunch Catholic upbringing sends him to a local parish where he seeks permission of the priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy) to have pleasur outside of wedlock against church teachings. While Father Brendan is reluctant at first, his compassionate side gives in and he condones Mark’s desires, basing his approval of the arrangement on their friendship, rather than their ecclesiastical relationship.

Phoning his contacts at the university, Mark is eventually connected to a researcher and sex surrogate Cheryl (Helen Hunt) who treats their agreement as clinical in nature rather than romantic, a desire Mark eventually begins to feel. Hunt’s careful, emotionally-vacant approach to the role is ceded in private scenes to worry that what she is doing will damage him more than help him. Ultimately, she feels that it’s her duty to continue, a duty which eventually gives way to a more emotional connection.

While director Ben Lewin is no stranger to filmmaking, his career has been spread across almost forty years, a fact that shows in the inartful ways he sometimes deals with the film’s events. Having written the screenplay, Lewin sticks to closely to the script and paints his film into a corner, never exceeding the leeway extended to him by the audience. This is a filmmaker who doesn’t seem interested in re-inventing the wheel and in the process almost drains the life out of the story.

Lewin’s failures as a filmmaker are made up for by an endearing screenplay and the affable lead performance of Hawkes. Hunt is the best she’s been since she was on television in Mad About You, though this performance alone cannot atone for her disappointing Oscar victory for As Good As it Gets, it’s a step in the right direction. The rest of the cast is appealing, but the biggest misstep was in the casting of Macy. While I think that Macy is a fine actor, his approach to Father Brendan is a bit too friendly. While I don’t mind performances and characters that depart from stereotypes, his lighthearted approach to the role doesn’t fit the necessities of the screenplay, which would have been better detailed with a more concerned or weighty performance.

Reading the premise makes The Sessions sound a bit too adult for its own good. The film’s more genial tone helps alleviate viewer concerns that the film will be too sexually charged. And while we aren’t given a movie that’s as clinical as Cheryl might have described it as being, it’s a warmhearted, rewarding film in spite or perhaps because of its unchallenging structure.
Review Written
March 14, 2013

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