Director : Ben Lewin
Screenplay : Ben Lewin
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2012
Stars : John Hawkes (Mark O’Brien), Helen Hunt (Cheryl), William H. Macy (Father Brendan), Moon Bloodgood (Vera), Annika Marks (Amanda), Adam Arkin (Josh), Rhea Perlman (Mikvah Lady), W. Earl Brown (Rod), Robin Weigert (Susan), Blake Lindsley (Dr. Laura White)
In The Sessions, John Hawkes plays Mark O’Brien, a real-life journalist and poet who spent 43 of his 49 years of life cruelly confined to an iron lung after a bout with childhood polio left him unable to move his limbs, and he is a revelation—praise I am inherently reluctant to make simply because of the long-standing cliché that playing disability is a surefire path to winning Oscar gold, especially in the last few decades (see Jon Voight in Coming Home, Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot, Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman, Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump, etc., etc.). Yet, it is impossible not to be moved by Hawkes’s performance. Without his body as a means of expression, Hawkes conveys his character’s deeply appealing humanity with little more than facial expressions and an expressive vocal register that is a dead ringer for his real-life counterpart (who passed away in 1999). It’s a great performance: direct and uncompromised, simple and compelling.
The story in The Sessions is based on a 1990 magazine article Mark wrote about his experience with a sexual surrogate, a therapist who specializes in dealing with sexual issues physically. Initially inspired by an assignment to write an article about sex and the disabled, Mark realizes that, as a 38-year-old virgin, he is like an anthropologist observing the behaviors of a foreign culture and decides to come to terms with his lack of sexual experience, which is driven as much by our culture’s shunning of the physically disabled as it is by his own fears of his crippled body. A devout Catholic, Mark first turns to Father Brendan (William H. Macy), his shaggy-haired parish priest, who is understanding of Mark’s predicament and ensures him that Jesus, who was something of a rule breaker Himself, will give him a “free pass.” “Go for it,” he tells him.
The surrogate Mark hires is Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Helen), a married mother of two who approaches her role with a necessarily distanced professionalism and adheres to a strict code of limited interaction (six sessions, max) designed to ensure that her clients don’t get emotionally involved. When Cheryl first meets with Mark, she is all business, but as the film progresses and they move closer and closer to achieving the sexual intercourse that Mark desires, she softens and warms. The point is not that she is falling in love with Mark in the clichéd sense of movie romanticism, but rather that she drops her guard enough to recognize the unique position he’s in and the desperation he feels for physical intimacy, if only briefly. His goal in losing his virginity is not to “become a man” in the shallow, juvenile sense of simply joining a fraternity of sexual conquest, but rather to experience the kind of human connection that his decades of encasement in a massive breathing apparatus prohibits. Mark is smart, sensitive, and deeply self-aware; therefore, he nurtures no illusions that his disabled body does not prohibits most able-bodied women from finding him attractive even as he is attracted to them (at one point he professes his love to one of his female attendants, only to be gently, but unquestionably rejected).
In this regard, The Sessions is a most provocative movie about sex, one that dares to actually suggest that physical connection is about more than just the physical. Sex is so common in modern cinema, yet so few films actually dedicate any attention to its many ramifications; more often than not, it is little more than a means to an end or an obligatory capstone to an on-screen romance. The relationship between Mark and Cheryl is inherently professional—he has hired her to provide a therapeutic service that necessitates sexual intimacy—yet The Sessions makes clear that it moves both them in profound ways. For Mark, losing his virginity is a metaphorical step toward shedding his feelings of shame about his body while also confirming that sex is, contrary to what modern culture tells us, hardly the end-all-be-all of existence, while for Cheryl it reminds her of the meaningfulness of an act that is all too common.
Both Hawkes and Hunt are physically and emotionally naked in their respective roles, and the best thing one could say about them is that they are profoundly human. Hunt, who won an Oscar in 1997 for her idealized role in As Good As It Gets (1997) but has only appeared sporadically in films over the past decade, gets at the tension between Cheryl’s need for professionalism and the tenderness she feels toward Mark without turning it into a melodramatic conundrum. She warms as the film moves on, as does Mark, who Hawkes plays as a man of great intelligence and self-awareness who all too often uses self-deprecating humor as a means of emotional protection (when asked if he believes in God, he asserts that he does, if only because he needs someone to blame for his predicament). Hawkes, whose previous roles in Winter’s Bone (2010) and Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011) as a backwoods meth dealer and a cult leader, respectively, were dark and foreboding, proves to be a chameleon, conveying aching vulnerability with the same conviction that he played dangerous and sinister. It is his voice, more than anything, that conveys his character. With its slightly nasally Boston tone, it has a unique, apprehensive cadence that embodies his emotional openness via the labor of having a machine breathe for him. In it we feel both his compelling, lively spirit and his physical entrapment.
The Sessions was written and directed by Ben Lewin, who has worked in film and television in both England and the U.S. for more than 30 years, but until now has not garnered a great deal of attention. His screenplay was derived primarily from Mark’s 1990 article “On Hiring a Sexual Surrogate” (many of the lines from that essay are reproduced via dialogue between Mark and Father Brendan), although he also seems to have been influenced by Jessica Yu’s Oscar-winning 1996 documentary short Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien, especially the moving sequence in which Mark expounds on the importance of his seeing himself as both a soul and a body. Lewin’s experience with directing comedy serves him well in The Sessions, as he finds an effective balance between the dramatic poignancy of the story and the need to give it a humorous edge. The laughs are always gentle, which is descriptive of the film as a whole, as it strives to reconnect cinematic sex with shared humanity.
Copyright ©2012 James Kendrick
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