Director: Ben Lewin
Cast: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy, Moon Bloodgood
MPAA Rating: (for strong sexuality including graphic nudity and frank dialogue)
Running Time: 1:35
Release Date: 10/19/12 (limited); 10/26/12 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | October 25, 2012
Perhaps we all hope that the story of our individual lives is worth the telling. We suspect Mark O'Brien's story is, despite the constant effort of The Sessions to reduce the life of a complex man in a maddening situation to simple statement: "My penis talks to me." For O'Brien, who died in 1999 at the age of 49, sex seemed to be an impossible act. As a child, he contracted polio, which left him almost completely immobile—only able to move his head—and needing an iron lung to breathe.
The Sessions is at least as forthright as O'Brien was about his experience attempting to correct his lack of sexual experience; his 1990 article about his encounters with a sex surrogate does not hold back from the graphic details—or the frustration, embarrassment, and guilt of a man who is uncertain whether having sex for the first time is worth the effort before and after he actually does. The movie, written and directed by Ben Lewin, practically ignores everything about O'Brien's life except as it relates to his sexual odyssey, turning the life of the man into little more than a curio.
Here is a man who, in the movie's prologue, managed to complete his bachelor's degree with the aid of a motorized gurney. At the story's start, he is a working journalist, focusing on the struggles of people with disabilities. The act of typing those stories and the poetry that allows him to explore his own feelings about his physical state is an overwhelming task unto itself. Without the ability to use his hands, he must place a stick between his teeth and use that to type.
It's these little details that have the greatest impact in O'Brien's story. The slightest act from the world outside—his cat's tail brushing against his nose—or what we would consider a moderate inconvenience—a power outage—become things infuriating—an all-night attempt to scratch the itch with his mind—and potentially deadly—the iron lung lacks a backup power source. An assistant administers his daily sponge baths and pushes him in a gurney wherever he needs to go (The motorized one caused too many "spectacular accidents," as he simply could not see where he was going).
John Hawkes plays Mark in a performance that relies entirely on two things: The strained inflection of his speech and his eyes. The former gives Mark's sardonic sense of humor an extra bite, since it takes a split second to register the jokes he makes with regularity. The latter, especially as lit by cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson, suggests a combination of total recognition and analysis of his surroundings and situation and a sense of grief in the conclusion.
The screenplay quickly focuses on an easy explanation for Mark's sadness when he hires a pretty, new attendant named Amanda (Annika Marks). He's infatuated with her but cannot do anything about it. He wants to be able to touch her. Despite his appearance, Mark is not fully paralyzed; he still has sensation. He goes so far as to tell her that he loves her. She might reciprocate those feelings, but perhaps his physical limitations or her fear of what others might think about such a relationship keep her from following through with the idea.
While writing an article about the sex lives of other people with disabilities, he decides he should attempt to have one of his own. That eventually leads him to start meeting with Cheryl (Helen Hunt), a sex surrogate who will help him experiment with his sexuality with the ultimate goal of having intercourse. If he can get past his insecurity, Mark believes it will be a cure-all for his woes.
Lewin whittles down Mark's conflicted being to this single thread (It goes against the spirit of the article upon which the movie is based, too, but that's a separate argument altogether). The choice is questionable, but at least the movie treats Mark's dilemma with as much respect as can be mustered from a movie that plays most of his missteps—premature climaxes and the like—for comedy. Much of that quality comes from actual content of the scenes between Mark and Cheryl, which do not shy away from reality, with her guiding him physically and vocally through the mostly awkward process.
The events surrounding the first sessions between the two feel natural, with Mark's priest (William H. Macy) acting in a more friendly than official capacity and Cheryl's husband (Adam Arkin) eschewing a more conflict-friendly response and dubbing her a "saint" for her work (Unfortunately, this attitude does not last for long), and the relationship between Mark and Cheryl finding the appropriate tension between his transference of emotions toward her and her need to keep things professional. This cannot last, and the gradual turn toward a story of unrequited love on both ends feels false.
So too does the movie's ultimate perspective on Mark's exploits, which further diminishes everything about the man to an easy-to-digest lesson about love from an almost omniscient voice-over. Again, there's a worthy story in Mark O'Brien's life, and The Sessions simply is not it.
Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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