Directed by: Ben Lewin.
Written by: Ben Lewin based on the article by Mark O’Brien.
Starring: John Hawkes (Mark O'Brien), Helen Hunt (Cheryl), William H. Macy (Father Brendan), Moon Bloodgood (Vera), Annika Marks (Amanda), Adam Arkin (Josh), Rhea Perlman (Mikvah Lady), W. Earl Brown (Rod), Robin Weigert (Susan), Blake Lindsley (Dr. Laura White), Ming Lo (Clerk), Rusty Schwimmer (Joan).
I am a notoriously soft touch at the movies in that I cry, or at least get to the verge of tears, in many, many movies – sometimes not even very good ones like Marley & Me, or a film like the upcoming The Impossible, in which I knew I was being manipulated but couldn’t stop myself. Hell, for a while there, nearly every Pixar movie (especially Wall-E) had me crying like a little girl. I bring this up at the beginning of the review of The Sessions because this is a movie that is clearly designed to make you cry at the end – and yet I never even got the least bit choked up. Despite my admiration for the performances in the movie, I never really connected with it. It is not a very ambitious movie, and is precisely the film it wants to be, and yet for whatever reason it left me cold.
The film stars John Hawkes as Mark O’Brien, who got polio when he was a child, and has been stuck in an iron lung for most of his life since. He can survive outside the iron lung for a few hours at a time, and can feel his entire body, but he cannot move anything other than his neck. Still, he has managed to live longer than his doctors thought possible, and have a good career as a writer and poet. He is a devout Catholic, but despite this, he has always long for something he has never had – a sex life. He loves women, and while he is charming and funny, they love him too – just “not in that way”. So he’s nearly 40 and a virgin, but while researching a series of articles to be titled “Sex and the Disabled”, he hears about people called “Sex Surrogates”. Yes, these are women who will have sex with you for money, but they are not prostitutes – they work with you to get you over your fears and insecurities so you can move on from them and have a normal sex life with a partner. After consulting his Priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy), who advises him “I feel pretty strongly he’ll give you a free pass on this one”, Mark hires Cheryl (Helen Hunt) to be his sex surrogate. She lays out the rules quite clearly – yes, the goal is to have sex, no she is not a prostitute, and they can only have six sessions together. This last one is to try and prevent any emotional attachment to form – although it’s not really successful in this case.
A large part of me admires this movie. John Hawkes, who because of his weasel-like appearance, especially when he grows the scraggily facial hair he normally has, is most often cast as bad guys in movies – the type of part that Steve Buscemi plays. Since he broke through with his Oscar nominated turn in Winter’s Bone, Hawkes has made the most of his raised profile – delivering an even better performance last year as a Charles Manson-like cult leader in Martha Marcy May Marlene. In The Sessions, he gets to play a nice, normal guy – a sympathetic character who quite understandably just wants to have as normal a life as is possible given his circumstances – and that includes having sex. Yes, this is the type of role that seems to be designed to be an Oscar player (like Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot), and Hawkes will probably be nominated for Best Actor for his role here, but it is also a genuinely good performance. Helen Hunt has arguably an even more difficult role, as she has to overcome some audience members pre-conceived notions of her character – no matter how the movie presents it, some will see her as little more than a prostitute – and also has to bare all multiple times in the movie, which is nerve wracking for many actresses, especially ones at Hunt’s age (I must say, she looks good). But this is a very good performance by Hunt, a sympathetic, complicated role, as although she doesn’t fall in love with Mark – she never stops loving her husband – her journey with him is certainly more emotional than she is used to. And finally, there is William H. Macy who is effortlessly funny and charming – essentially the kind of Priest I think must Catholics wish they had.
I also admire the movie’s willingness to direct address sex. American movies seem to be very puritanical about sex, and I cannot think of another movie that even attempts to address sex and the handicapped, let along be honest about it. The highlight of The Sessions is appropriately enough the sessions themselves between these two, which are embarrassing, funny and honest.
But all this admiration for the movie never really led me to become involved in it. Curiously, I felt emotionally detached from the proceedings. I think it’s because despite how good the performances in the film are, they cannot overcome the fact that none of the characters have any real complexity – everyone in the movie is just so damn nice and likable and sensitive and kind, that I had trouble believing that anyone, anywhere could possibly be like this. Sex and love are messy in real life, and The Sessions wants everything to be so neat and tidy.
The Sessions is certainly not a bad movie, and yet I don’t think it’s a very good one either. I admire and liked Mark O’Brien as played by John Hawkes in this movie, but overall it felt like the movie painted him as too saintly. Disabled people are people – with all the messy emotions, hurt, pain and contradictions that everyone else has. I wish there was more of that in The Sessions. There certainly was in Jim Sheridan’s My Left Foot, which is why it remains perhaps the best film in this genre ever made – and why The Sessions left me cold.