The Sessions

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Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
  The Sessions
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) was felled by polio as a young boy and must spend the bulk of his days living in an iron lung. Now, at 36-years old, he realizes that his days are numbered and he has never had relations with a woman. With the help of his therapist and his priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy), he seeks the help of a sex surrogate, Cheryl (Helen Hunt), in “The Sessions.”

Robin:
There have been a number of films of functionally disabled men – “Whose Life Is It, Anyway?” with Richard Dreyfus, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” with Mathieu Amalric, and “The Intouchables” with Francois Cluzet and others – coping with being permanently infirm. With “The Sessions,” longtime feature and documentary filmmaker Ben Lewin explores the issue of normal sexual urges in a not-so-physically-normal man. Mark discusses his fast-growing needs with Father Brendan (these interchanges between Hawkes and Macy are both hilarious and poignant) and, with the help of his therapist, contacts Cheryl, a wife and mother, who happens to be a qualified sex surrogate.

Based on a true story, Mark is a journalist who agrees to write an article about handicapped people and sex and the role of the sex surrogate. Writer-director Lewin balances his principal characters, Mark and Cheryl, and delves into the lives of each. Equal shrift is given to these fully dimensioned people and their private lives and Hawkes and Hunt are both terrific. Each gives a brave, honest performance in their own right and both are noteworthy character studies.

The supporting cast, though, is also notable and gives fullness to their characters. Moon Bloodgood, as Vera, and W. Earl Brown as Rod, are Mark’s understanding caretakers who gladly help there boss with his “research.” William Macy is charmingly funny and his friend-first-priest-second relationship with Mark has real feeling layered with humor.

The small budget well utilizes its few sets with most of the “action” taking place in a friend’s bedroom or, amusingly, in a motel room where Vera negotiates a two-hour room rental with the desk clerk (Ming Lo).

Skilled direction, a talented cast and a simple but elegant story will garner a lot of sympathy from its targeted, more mature audience. There is a lovely arc to the relationship that develops between Mark and Cheryl and the actors give it genuine feeling. I give it a B+.

Laura:
Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes, "Winter's Bone") had survived in an iron lung far longer than his doctors expected, even finding success as a poet and journalist in Berkeley, CA, but, at the age of 38, a request for him to write an article on sex with disabilities uncovered his own deep desire to lose his virginity.  With the blessing of his priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy, "Fargo," Showtime's 'Shameless'), Mark engaged sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt, "As Good As It Gets") and learned not only the act of physical love but of intimacy in "The Sessions."

Writer/director Ben Lewin ("The Favor, the Watch and the Very Big Fish"), who shared his subject's disease as a child, has created one of cinema's most unusual love stories by fleshing out O'Brien's 'On Seeing a Sex Surrogate' by interviewing the two women who were his sexual partners.  The film is challenging, joyous, heartbreaking and quite funny and features a physically demanding  performance from Hawkes, who studied Jessica Yu's Oscar winning documentary short "Breathing Lessons" (you can watch here www.snagfilms.com/films/title/breathing_lessons) to get O'Brien's voice right (and, of course, he did).  Helen Hunt, though, is every bit his equal in a role sure to fire up the lead or supporting debate.  It is her sexual matter-of-factness mixed with professional compassion and just a little bit of nerves which make very honest depictions and discussion of sex comfortable, not only for her client but for the film's audiences.  She also has an uncanny ability to break our hearts.

The film begins by depicting the indignity suffered by many disabled who already suffered enough.  Mark goes to confession (he can leave his iron lung for brief periods, although he is completely dependent, transported via gurney) and meets his new priest, Father Brendan, and getting his blessing to fire his current attendant, Joan (Rusty Schwimmer, "North Country"), for her attitude of his needing her more than she he, despite the livelihood he provides her.  He picks his next, Amanda (Annika Marks), because of physical attraction despite her lack of experience, and while the two grow into a close relationship, hers isn't the kind of love he desperately hopes for.  When he tells her he loves her, she flees.  Enter serious student Vera (Moon Bloodgood, TNT's 'Falling Skies'), whose severe appearance disguises an adventurous spirit.  It is Vera (and Bloodgood is excellent support) who will assist Mark through his sexual awakening.

A couple of frank interviews lead Mark to sex therapist Laura White (Blake Lindsley).  It is her encouragement that connects Mark with Cheryl and on that first phone call they discover they're both from Massachusetts. Mark's friend Carmen (Jennifer Kumiyama, Miss Wheelchair 2010) provides her home as a comfortable place for their first session, Mark's apartment being dominated by his iron lung, and the first awkward bump, payment, leads into an explanation of how a surrogate differs from a prostitute.  Mark is reminded that they will meet for a maximum of six sessions only.  During the first, there is no intercourse, but body awareness exercises. Mark realizes he'll need to overcome he hurdle of being overly excited while Cheryl ponders how she will accomplish what he wants given his extremely physical drawbacks.

From this point, Lewin starts branching out from Mark's point of view.  We learn that Cheryl is a married mom whose burly, tattooed husband, Josh (Adam Arkin, "A Serious Man"), she describes as a 'philosopher.'  We hear Hunt's narration as Cheryl logs notes on her sessions, more of a psychologist's role than surrogate.  On the flip, we hear Mark's confessions to the ofttimes unnerved Brendan (and his overhearing flock).  When Laura forgets an appointment, the sessions are moved to a motel, where Vera begins another amusing observational discourse on events with the establishment's reception clerk (Ming Lo).  Emotions have a surprising impact and Mark makes a momentous decision.  A near tragedy sets his life on yet another surprising course as we see Cheryl make a new commitment ('Cheers's' Rhea Perlman makes a wonderful Mikvah lady).

If he film has a drawback is its confusing period production.  The events depicted took place in the late 80's, yet the film gives off a strong 70's vibe from locations to Mark's colorful shirts to his priest's shoulder length shag and Josh's hippie persona.  Geoffrey Simpson's ("Shine," "Under the Tuscan Sun") digital photography even evokes the filmmaking of the earlier decade.  But this is a quibble, as Lewin's script and direction bring to life a remarkable man and the women who see beyond the disability to make a deep human connection.  Lewin's direction opens up his subject so that we are able to see many facets of the man, from his day-to-day trials, to his life as a writer and finally, as a man like any other.

In addition to the baring and sensitive performances from Hawkes and Hunt, Lewin's film has been carefully cast to people the world around them.  William H. Macy plays a composite character representing O'Brien's Catholic conundrum which, in the hands of a lesser actor, could have slipped into that twee nuns-being-naughty kind of humor.  Instead we get an initially uncomfortable priest who rises to an unusual challenge with honesty and humor.  Bloodgood is almost unrecognizable as Vera, a sensible caregiver with forthright views and a subdued yet playful manner.  Adam Arkin doesn't make Josh easy, giving him a macho undercurrent that doesn't jibe with surface appearances but plays to the time.  Hawke's 'Deadwood' costar Robin Weigart (she played Calamity Jane) combines elements of all Mark's other good female relationships to become his final partner.

"The Sessions" is a small film that ventures into unusual territory with amazing grace.  Hawkes and Hunt face entirely different challenges and create a wondrous harmony.

B+
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