Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Sessions

A short synopsis for The Sessions reads like a typical little Sundance indie that mawkishly pleads to pluck your heartstrings, send you off in a good spirit and hopefully pick up an award or two along the way, while being ever aware of the manipulations at hand.  The story of man, a real man in fact, stricken with polio from a young age who hires a sex surrogate to take his virginity away sounds, in fact, reeks of nearly horrid forced sentimentality and sexual awkwardness for an American film-- that the film premiered at this years Sundance Film Festival doesn't do it much favors.  Yet, here comes a surprise.  A joyous and happily earned one, in that The Sessions, directed by Polish filmmaker Ben Lewin, is a ripely tender, sexually frank, happy, sad small chamber, centralized and grounded by actors who express open-ended humanity and maturity.  The honesty presented in a story about the growth of one mans sexuality is nearly tantamount to one of the few American homegrown specimens to explore the subject free of typical yucks or graceless romanticism of foreplay.  There's been fewer times in American cinema where the idea of sex was treated so frankly, but with such little fanfare over the idea of shown body parts or choices in language.  For that The Sessions, with its small, but truthful tale and overall arc, deserves a piece of whatever Sundancian goodwill may come its way.

Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes) was a real life poet, and real life victim of polio-- he was also the subject of the 1997 Oscar-winning short subject documentary Breathing Lessons: The Life & Work of Mark O'Brien (the real O'Brien died into 1999 at the age of 49); The Sessions, itself, was based upon O'Brien's own article, "On Seeing a Sex Surrogate."  Spending most of days confined to the iron lung that takes his breaths for him, O'Brien's days are spent writing, flirting with his female attendants, and in the few hours he is able to spend unconfined, visiting church.  Still alive, long after most polio survivors have meet their maker, the virgin O'Brien is, well frustrated, but more clinically, horny.  As played by Hawkes, an invaluable character actor for years who delivered major (and quite creepy) performances back to back in films like his Oscar-nominated Winter's Bone and last years Martha Marcy May Marlene, is revelatory as O'Brien.  Dynamic in carrying and leading the movie despite and despite the limitations of playing a victim incapable of standing or much movement beyond slight gestures in the head, he demonstrates and underlying charisma, joie de vivre and physicality.  There's hardly gestures of victimhood in his performance, nor shades of pity felt-- he's a charmer, but also a bit of a cad, as some of his attendants might defend in awkward bathing moments.

While doing separate research on a piece involving sexuality with the disabled, and spurred on his new attendant Vera (Moon Bloodgood), O'Brien seeks advice on his own sexual chances with a sex therapist.  Through this he meets Cheryl (Helen Hunt), a sex surrogate who may be able to help with his unique condition.  The role itself, as Cheryl begins to extol, of a sex surrogate is far from a prostitute, but more a therapist who clinically awakens, re-awakens sexual desires in someone on a path to sexual prowess, not one who intends to retain repeat customers.  The rules are simple in that the limit to the number sessions is six.  Hunt proves a terrific foil for Hawkes, and the heart, the soul and bulk of the film thankfully revolves around their sessions, and budding relationship that begins to emotionally alter both of them.  Hunt, typically known for her comedic chops, has seemingly never quite dug down as deeply before, and while many will make notice of her frequent undressing, its the casually carnal demeanor that she exhibits that's more impressive.  It's the calm, but reaffirming gestures she imbues in Cheryl that unleashes the possibilities in O'Brien that he never knew he was quite capable of to begin with.  In the sessions, there's hardly a false note.

Outside of the wonderfully calibrated scenes of O'Brien starting to get his groove on, however, prove the weaker spots of The Sessions, and unfortunately so, because there seems like there may have been something far more potent there too.  O'Brien was also a devout Catholic.  His daily visits and confessions with Father Brendan (William H. Macy) are the easy way into his story; most of the film uses these as flashbacks to further the movie.  What could have been a firmer, more thought-provoking angle to the O'Brien sexual odyssey may have been if the film explored the faithful man and his doubts in a more mindful, adult manner.  Whereas the film is a huge achievement in the way it explores sexuality with a pure straight face, his pious nature is more of a long-running joke.  Not an attack on Catholicism, mind you, but a less absorbing piece of the narrative puzzle.  Macy's constant mugging works against him and the film, making the church visits more a comic relief resting stop than a sobering discussion of a deeper conflict-- in this case pre-marital sexual intercourse.

Perhaps the idea was to soften the film; this a crowd-pleasing Sundance entry after all.  Lewin's smartly gilded light touch may have been enough, however, to the keep the film from drifting into melodramatic territory.  But Lewin deserves a multitude of credit for shaping this little movie with a big pulse and a humanistic spirit that never strays into saccharine sentimentality.  And for keeping the two leading performers so leveled-- there's hardly been a better match pair on display in any film in 2012.  B+

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