THE SESSIONS, 2012
Director: Ben Lewin
Stars: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, Moon Bloodgood, Annika Marks, W. Earl Brown, Blake Lindsley, Adam Arkin and William H. Macy
A man in an iron lung who wishes to lose his virginity contacts a professional sex surrogate with the help of his therapist and priest.
Let's face it; we still have a real problem talking about sex. Despite ostensibly being a nature of adults, whenever the subject of sex (and especially its problems) comes up we fall into a pattern of titillation and giggling or straight forward repression. How refreshing it is then to see a mature (in every scope of the word) take on the subject in Ben Lewin's 'The Sessions.'
Adapted, loosely, from an article written by the poet Mark O'Brien in the 1990s, 'The Sessions' deals with O'Brien's difficult decision to seek the help of a sexual surrogate in order to find out if he was actually physically capable of a sexual relationship due to the ravages polio had wreaked on his body as a child.
O'Brien himself is an irresistible subject, a gifted poet who wrote (when he wasn't writing about baseball) extensively on what it was like to live his life, which included having to sleep in an iron long and use a completely motorized wheelchair due to the nerve damage suffered as a result of polio. Merging that dysfunction with the requirement to talk frankly about sex should be a dream role for an actor. If it wasn't, it all but certainly becomes so after seeing what John Hawkes ('Winter's Bone') does with it.
Well into middle age and with no serious physical or even really emotional relationship to show for his life, after a great deal of thought and consultation with his priest (William H. Macy) Mark has decided to see a sexual surrogate to find out if he is even capable of doing what he longs to do.
In another actor's hands it could be dour or cynical or repressed or any of the various choices these sorts of roles often seem to bring out of actors. In Hawks hands even the bitterest defeat is turned to playfulness and a biting but still charming self-deprecation. His O'Brien is a man who, for all that he has been afflicted with, desperately believes in God because he can't imagine living in a world where there was no one to blame for all that was wrong with it.
He's ably abetted in that task by Lewin's script which does a tremendous amount of the films heavy lifting. If it does fall down in one regard it's that, in trying to show Mark's relationship to all the various women who pass through his life, from his assistants (Moon Bloodgood, Annika Marks) to his therapist (Helen Hunt, in her very best performance ever), none of them quite get what they deserve from the story. For the most part we are limited to flashes, bits and pieces of their lives, but nothing near as complex as Mark.
It's particularly frustrating once Cheryl (Hunt), one of the few characters easily a match for Mark, arrives on the scene. Beyond what she can do for Mark she herself represents a fascinating character in her own right, tantalizing the audience with how she balances what she does with her other life as a wife and mother. It's a plum part and Hunt is as good as she has ever been, but without quite the screen time to carry it off eventually she just gets carried away by the films momentum. She doesn't quite disappear but she never quite comes into her own either, having no real dramatic climax to navigate.
Still, if that's the worst that can be said about 'The Sessions' – that the characters are so good you want more of them – that leaves Levin's film in very good company. It is not flashy at all, in fact it is as straight forward as its approach to its subject matter, but what it lacks in style it more than makes up for in substance, and that is rare indeed.