The Sessions

November, 2012, Drama

Hollywood isn’t known for avoiding sensationalism when a storyline almost begs for it, so perhaps its no coincidence this thoughtful, modest film about a hippie-era sex therapist and her “sessions” with a young polio victim in San Francisco was  made by a 67 year-old Polish director who migrated to Australia to work in movies and television. While writer/director Ben Lewin tells this true story of awakened human sexuality with unblushing frankness, he’s consistently tasteful in the process, producing a movie about the male orgasm that’s simultaneously candid and tactful. Thanks to the nuanced performances of leads John Hawkes and Helen Hunt what could have easily been lurid becomes a quietly triumphant story of physical wholeness.

Hawkes is one of Hollywood’s most seen and least recognized actors; in more than 115 roles over the past 27 years, his is a face audiences recognize without being able to attach a name to it. He’s capable of projecting every quality from quiet dignity (Me and You and Everyone We Know) to terrifying brutality (Winter’s Bone). His performance here as Mark O’Brien, a paralyzed writer/poet who spends most of his time in an iron lung, requires total reliance on the actor’s facial expressions and tone of voice to convey a nuanced journey to sexual fulfillment. O’Brien’s a 30-ish, Roman Catholic who seeks advice from his priest/confessor (William H. Macy) about the moral implications of losing his virginity to Cheryl (Helen Hunt) a clear-eyed, no-nonsense therapist with a doting husband (played by Adam Arkin) and teenage son. She informs O’Brien that she’ll only see him on 6 separate occasions in order to ward off any possible emotional dependency; as the storyline unfolds, the necessity for that boundary becomes quite apparent.

 Hunt is one of those actresses whose popularity on television in the highly rated series Mad About You was bookended by a pair of successful film comedies co-staring men nearly a generation older (Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets and Mel Gibson in What Women Want). As she approaches her 50th birthday early next year, she must look back on the last decade with bittersweet awareness at the manner in which Hollywood treats actresses who enter their 40’s at the peak of their capabilities only to wind up with smaller, less impactful roles. Hunt remains physically stunning (perhaps with the help of a good plastic surgeon?);  her ability to leave that bubbly, sit-com personality of a decade ago behind and tackle a role in which she exudes a degree of clinical detachment she can’t always sustain makes for a wonderful change of pace for a carefully burnished image as a talent best employed in lighter fare.

 Sessions weakest point revolves around Macy’s Father Brendan; despite a hair-do worthy of a Hell’s Angel, a significant nicotine habit and a vocabulary of historically accurate one-liners (“just go for it”) Macy’s padre seems oddly out of place, as though the actor instinctively senses the script doesn’t give him lines which really contribute to Mark’s struggle for guidance. Macy’s supposed to be a spiritual advisor and the actor’s considerable talents are wasted on a role that winds up conveying (intentionally or not) that serious discussion about personal sexual morality is an essentially vapid activity.

 That said, this leisurely hour and a half tale of a physically challenged man’s coming of age stealthily catches up with you; by the final credits, you can be forgiven for so openly rooting for the carnality O’Brien finally achieves…and what he subsequently does with it. 

The Verdict? Not a great film by any means - - but a wholesomely pleasant surprise none the less.

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