The Sessions – A Review

Last night while a bunch of young women (and their dutiful boyfriends) were lining up for the latest and final installment of the Twilight franchise, I decided to go in a very different direction. Rather than a night of vampires and werewolves, I went to a screening of the small independent film The Sessions. I in no way regret my decision.

If you haven’t heard of The Sessions, I’m not surprised. I was only really aware of the film because it made a splash at the Sundance film festival and I’m the type of movie nerd that pays attention to such things. Though it is a small budget movie, it has a big budget cast; the film features Helen Hunt, William H. Macy and John Hawkes, who isn’t a household name but should be. All are spectacular in this sweet and moving story about Mark O’Brien (Hawkes), a 36 year old man in an iron lung who decides that he wants to lose his virginity. Because of his limited mobility and his special circumstances, he seeks the assistance of a sex surrogate (Hunt) in this endeavor and is supported by his friend and priest (William H. Macy). So, you know, the typical Hollywood plotline.

While The Sessions could have been played as a downer or had laughs at the expense of Mark, the film treats all of its characters with respect while still finding the humor in the situation. Though Mark’s muscles may have atrophied, his mind is razor sharp and he has a wonderful sense of humor. You can’t help but to root for him to be successful. Hawkes is really quite remarkable in this role, which is not surprising given his stellar track record in Deadwood, Winter’s Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene (he’s also in Eastbound and Down, so it isn’t all highbrow stuff on his resume). Because he was physically limited in what he can do in this role, his face and voice have to do all the heavy lifting. He was so convincing that I had to remind myself that he wasn’t actually disabled and that this was all an act. He is so vulnerable and so funny and he really makes Mark a fully realized person in his own right, not just a character in a movie. It’s getting to the point that when I hear Hawkes is in a movie, I immediately am on board to see it. He is quietly becoming one of the most interesting and reliable actors working today. Even when he’s in a movie I don’t enjoy, his performances never disappoint.

My fear going into this movie was Helen Hunt; at some point, I turned on her as an actress and generally do not look forward to anything that she is in. I’m not sure what caused this 180 – I used to like her when she was in Mad About You and As Good As It Gets, but somewhere along the line I tired of her. Whatever precipitated my change, I was worried that my general dislike of her would inhibit my ability to enjoy The Sessions. That fear, however, turned out to be unwarranted. Hunt was actually extremely likable – and very naked – in the film and whatever my reservations about her personally, I found her to be effective as Mark’s sex surrogate. Hawkes and Hunt worked very well together and one of the joys of the film is watching their relationship slowly develop. Touching and hilarious.

William H. Macy has a smaller part in The Sessions, but he is fantastic as always. Macy is conflicted about Mark’s quest – he is, after all, a priest – but nevertheless encouraging. He is Mark’s de facto sounding board and through their conversations we get a better idea of who Mark is as a person. Macy has some of the funniest scenes in the movie and was really a pleasure to watch.

Obviously, given the subject matter, there is a lot of discussion of sex in the film and a fair amount of nudity. However, none of it felt gratuitous or unearned; unlike horror films where women take their tops off for no apparent reason, everything in The Sessions is tasteful and necessary to advance the plot. Some people may be uncomfortable with the frank discussion of sex in the film, but don’t let the subject matter alone scare you off from the movie. It is all very well done and is in fact a very sweet movie. It is really more about intimacy than sex.

I was well aware of what this movie was about before going to see it, but looking around the theater before it started made me skeptical that everyone else knew what they were getting into in regards to subject matter. I was nervous that this movie wouldn’t go over well with the usual screening crowd, who are generally just there for the free movie and the majority of whom I wouldn’t think this movie would normally appeal to.  There were some nervous titters in the beginning and you could some general uneasiness, but that all disappeared very quickly. People seemed to be getting into the story – the humor helped – and when something happens in the final act, there was an audible audience reaction. This little film definitely won the crowd over and though I didn’t poll anyone as we were leaving, they generally seemed to enjoy it.

Some other thoughts:

  • The Twi-hards were already out in force at 5:30pm for a 10 pm screening. I’ve got to give them credit in their devotion, even if I think their taste is questionable. And save your cards and letters – I actually read and enjoyed the Twilight books. But you will never convince me that the movies aren’t terrible.
  • The people with the baby were back and once again, the baby fussed throughout the film and was loudly crying on more than one occasion. They did eventually take the kid out briefly, but not before he/she cried for a few minutes. I look forward to the screening when I wind up seated next to these people, because I am going to be unable to keep my mouth shut. If it does happen – and this is “smallbany” after all – make sure to tune into the local news that night. I guarantee I’ll be on it. A+ parenting, people.
  • The rest of the supporting cast was great as well – look for another Deadwood alumni to make an appearance in a small role.
  • I didn’t realize this before the movie, but it is based on a true story and inspired by the essay the real Mark O’Brien wrote about his experiences, “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate” (though I don’t suggest reading it until after you see the movie).

I wouldn’t be at all surprised if The Sessions gets some love come Academy Award season. It’s an original and inspired story that is only elevated by the stellar performances of the lead actors. I enjoyed this movie tremendously and have even temporarily halted my irrational feud with Helen Hunt. Even if you aren’t an indie film brat like I am, I think you will find this film tremendously enjoyable.  Just probably not the best movie to watch on a first date or with your parents.

The Sessions opens nationwide today.

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