A screenshot form "The Session" featuring John Hawkes and Helen Hunt. (Photo : Fox Searchlights)
"The Sessions" tells the charming story of a man in an iron long coming to terms with his own sexuality and loneliness with a sex surrogate.
65 year old writer/director Ben Lewin achieves a remarkable balance between the comic aspects of the story and its more serious nature but without ever sacrificing the other. The moment the film seems to be headed into truly heavy territory, Lewin and his incredible cast throw a small ounce of levity that immediately relieves you. What this creates is not only a strong and subtle character study, but an enjoyable one.
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The film tackles a vast array of themes and ideas. O'Brien knows his "due date" is close by and after being rejected by his first love asserts his desire for sexual intercourse to feel like a "real man." But Lewin takes small jabs at this belief that sex is a fulfilling experience as characters constantly jeer at the fact that it ends too quickly and at one point O'Brien even notes that he thought it would be a bigger deal to which his attendant Rod (W. Earl Brown) notes that intercourse Is overrated and that there are many ways to achieve the same result. As the story deepens, the perspective of human connection and love starts to really dominate the narrative as O'Brien no longer seeks out individual sexual expression but sexual and emotional connection.
The film also presents the theme of religion, but it never feels fully explored and seems more like a backdrop for O'Brien's character.
John Hawkes' dynamic performance as the real life Mark O'Brien is a tremendous wonder that will surely be noticed in the upcoming Awards season. He brings tremendous physicality despite only being able to move his head. Despite a few moments where the claustrophobia is evident, the greatest achievement that Lewin and Hawkes achieve is to not make the audience feel the trapped nature of this guy's existence. What they instead offer his O'Brien's joy of life and his desire to live it to the fullest.
As the film opens we are treated to a news report of O'Brien attending university. This is a man who will not let his disability hinder him, and this is exactly what Hawkes brings to the proceedings. He always has an upbeat cheeriness about him and makes unbelievable jokes when you least expect them. But one-liners don't carry the story and there is a great deal of dignity and heart here as well. One particular moment that jumps to mind is when O'Brien confesses his love to his first sweetheart Amanda (Annika Marks) only to realize that the affection is not reciprocated. At another point, he tells Helen Hunt's Cheryl Cohen Greene that he loves her despite knowing that they can never be together.
The most interesting aspect of the performance is how Hawkes seems to hide O'Brien's feeling of self-worthlessness behind his jokes and joyful attitude. There is also an inkling of an inner struggle behind a man who wrestles with the imprisonment of his condition and his longing to live to the fullest. The frustration is never released, but there are moments where it threatens to come out.
Like Hawkes, Helen Hunt brings an equally physical and yet subtle performance as sex surrogates Cheryl Cohen Greene. She starts off the film with a strong sense of control and authority and no self-consciousness as she strips nude but as her relationship with O'Brien deepens, she starts to soften. The strength and confidence that she displays in her family life at the start of her story gives way to instability. Hunt's character's inner battle between her professionalism and her developing personal feelings is subtle in its presentation but remains visceral and potent for the viewer. Like Hawkes, Hunt deserves in the awards buzz she is likely to garner in coming months.
William H. Macy is quite entertaining as Father Brendan, O'Brien's new priest. In some ways, he seems confused about his own values as he listens intently to O'Brien's sexual desires. When O'Brien asks him if God will be okay with him fornicating without marriage, he looks up at his beloved idol and then mutters, "In my heart, I think he will give you a free pass on this one." Macy's reaction is priceless later in the film as O'Brien tells him about his sexual relationships with his wife.
Moon Bloodgood threatens to steal a few scenes as O'Brien's attendant Vera. She maintains a deadpan throughout, but is particularly comic as she resists the advances of a clerk at the motel where Cheryl and O'Brien are having their "therapy" sessions. Her interactions with Hawkes are full of equally light moments.
Like everything in this film, the art direction by John Mott, the cinematography by Geoffrey Simpson, and the music of Marco Beltrami is subdued and efficient. The entire production coheres in such a manner as to never overpower the incredible acting that carries this picture.
The film moves along briskly in a rather subdued manner. It does lose its footing a bit in the final act as it seeks a way out. Fortunately the end comes quickly and ultimately leaves you satisfied. It is a feel-good film to be sure, but also one that emphasizes the brevity of life and the necessity to live it to the fullest.
The Sessions will be released on October 19 in limited theaters.
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