Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Sessions (2012)

Ben Lewin’s screenplay is based on a 1990 magazine article by Mark O’Brien titled, “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate”.  Mark contracted polio as a six year old and while he still has feelings and bodily sensations, his muscles do not move and he spends the vast majority of his life in an iron lung.  Attentive caregivers wheeling him from place to place on a gurney and a very active mind help Mark graduate from college and even make a living as a poet and journalist.  However, there is nothing deeper than that, no romantic relationships, no deep emotions, and obviously no sex.

Even though he is immobile, Mark (John Hawkes) still has the body, urges, and curiosity of a man.  In 1988, Mark is now 38 years old and a virgin.  While interviewing folks for an article about the disabled and sexuality, Mark discovers that all sorts of people with disabilities still have sex lives; maybe he can try it out for himself.  Enter Cheryl (Helen Hunt) the sex surrogate.  The what?  The sex surrogate, not the prostitute.   Cheryl will only see her clients a maximum of six times and lays down a couple of other rules during session one which technically put her on another plane than a prostitute, but not necessarily that far off from one either.  Luckily, Mark lives in Berkeley where one could probably locate a sex surrogate more easily than in say, North Dakota. 
A further twist is Mark is a devout Catholic.  Before he engages in these six sessions with Cheryl where the goal is actual sexual penetration, he wants the blessing of the church.  Father Brendan (William H. Macy) is probably the most liberal priest is the history of priests.  He has long, wavy hair, sports a bandana when he is out and about, brings a six pack to the party, and is probably the only priest who ever truly fit in with the Berkeley atmosphere.  Mark becomes a sort of vessel for Father Brendan as well because both men are technically celibate.  Mark desires to explore the uncharted waters of sexual contact and Father Brendan is more than willing to pay his undivided attention while Mark describes the delicate details of copulation. 
John Hawkes as Mark O’Brien is as far removed from his characters in Winter’s Bone and Martha Marcy Mae Marlene as he could get.  He is not physically and emotionally menacing as he was in those films and has his work cut out for him since he can only use his face muscles and witty words to communicate with those around him.  At 49, Helen Hunt is probably the bravest actress in Hollywood to accept the role of Cheryl.  She spends a considerable amount of time undressing and in the altogether.  There is nothing particularly erotic about it though.  There is no accompanying musical score to set the mood or darker lighting to clue the audience in that they should find these scenes sexy.  In fact, this is some of the unsexiest nudity you will ever see.  It is certainly not because Helen Hunt is unattractive, far from it, the woman obviously spends a considerable amount of time in the gym.  It is because the sessions between Mark and Cheryl are not specifically about the physical act.  They are more about trust, emotions, and being comfortable in your own skin – even if that skin is attached to limbs which cannot move.
There are some unintentional similarities with Hunt’s character here and with her character, Carol, from As Good as It Gets (1997).  Both women become attached to men who have a very specific disability which obstructs their relationship with her.  Here, Mark is immobile and requires constant attention from a caregiver but he is emotionally connects with Cheryl and maintains a much needed sense of humor about the whole thing.  Jack Nicholson’s character, Melvin Udall, has a severe case of OCD and a demeanor which automatically repels those of the opposite sex but through a series of moments which establish trust, emotions, and being comfortable in your own skin, end up breaking through certain barriers.
The Sessions was a hit with audiences on the festival circuit and is garnering multiple award nominations for both Hawkes and Hunt.  While there is enough dramatic impact to connect the audience with the characters, the film feels a bit too light to truly make an impact.  The scenes between Father Brendan and Mark are amusing as the priest tries to navigate some very frank sexual discussions but the meat of the film is the one-on-one time between Mark and Cheryl.  Those are the takeaways the audience will remember long after awards season has come and gone. 

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