Monday, February 11, 2013

The Sessions

The Sessions (2012)
Drama, Romance, 95 minutes
Directed by Ben Lewin
Starring John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, and William H. Macy

Here's a movie that would never have been made 30 or 40 years ago, because of the subject matter. It's based on the true story of how 38-year-old Mark O'Brien (Hawkes) tried to lose his virginity. What complicates matters is that he spends most of his life inside an iron lung, and he can only leave it for two or three hours at a time. He's a polio victim, and while he's able to feel sensation in every part of his body, his muscles aren't strong enough to enable him to stand. In fact, his emaciated body has trouble remaining straight, even with him lying down.

Are you depressed yet? It doesn't sound like a very uplifting story, does it? Actually, it may surprise you.

Although Mark's situation is serious, and is treated as such for the most part, the movie is full of humor. Don't misunderstand me; it's not a comedy, but the story of a man who uses humor to enable him to tolerate his limited existence. If you have ever seen The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, you'll know exactly what I mean. As I enjoyed the humor, I wondered whether that's a common defense mechanism for people with physical handicaps, or a device used by the director to make a grim situation more palatable for the audience.

We see Mark try a series of caregivers, before eventually settling on Vera (Moon Bloodgood). She's friendly and clearly gets on well with Mark, supporting him whenever she can. Mark decides that he wants to experience sex before he dies, but he's a religious man and doesn't feel comfortable pursuing the idea without the blessing of his priest, Father Brendan (Macy). Macy is great in his role, and gives us a way to hear Mark's thoughts, doubts, and ideas. The exchanges between the two provide many of the movie's highlights.

After getting permission to see a sex surrogate, Mark sets up the appointment. This is where things really start to get interesting. He meets Cheryl (Hunt), who is assigned to teach him about sex. There is a lot of nudity from this point on, and the R-rating is justified. If you are squeamish about nudity, or planning on watching it with a young child, it won't be a good choice. The discussions between Cheryl and Mark are frank and to the point, with constant references to sexual practices and terminology. Cheryl says at the outset that she can only meet Mark for a maximum of six sessions, presumably to make it clear that the two aren't entering into a permanent relationship. She's married with a son, and this is her occupation; she's not a prostitute.

Put yourself in Mark's position for a moment. It's a natural human need, so why should he miss out? The movie handles the subject well, keeping things serious when they need to be. If the humor had been misplaced, or too frequent, it would have cheapened the story. But the balance is just about perfect, and I found myself empathizing with Mark and rooting for him.

It's an adult movie that will make you laugh out loud frequently, and perhaps shed a tear. Hawkes is superb in the role and was unlucky not to be nominated. Hunt gained the movie's only nomination, and her performance was faultless. I liked the characters and appreciated everything about the movie. It's one that I'll probably pick up on Blu-ray in the near future.

Overall score 4/5

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  1. Great review, Steve! I think I'll be seeing this one this weekend!