TCFF Day 5: ‘The Sessions’ Review

The fun fest continues for MN film lovers. I love the eclectic schedule of TCFF, mixing tiny-budgeted MN films with studio-backed films of various genres. Today we’ve got a regional premiere of a character-driven drama that’s been getting some Oscar buzz, and so far it has won the Audience Award and Special Jury Prize at Sundance.

The Sessions

In one of the scenes in the film, the paraplegic Mark O’Brien called a university to inquire for someone in a Sex and the Disabled department, only to be told that the said department has closed down. That seems to be the general attitude of people—and Hollywood for that matter—on such topic, so it’s quite intriguing to see a film that tackles that subject head on but with care and wit.

Based on the autobiographical writings of Berkeley-based journalist and poet Mark O’Brien, the protagonist played by John Hawkes has spent most of his entire life in an iron lung, a form of medical ventilator that enables him to breathe as his muscle control has been lost due to polio. One day he expresses his wishes to a priest of his local parish that he wants to ‘know a woman in the Biblical sense.’ The reaction of Father Brendan (William H. Macy) is quite hysterical, mostly because as a priest, he’s clearly not equipped to advise anyone on such matters, which makes for a hilarious yet heartfelt interaction between the two. With the priest’s blessings, the next thing Mark sets out to do is find a sex surrogate, a form of sexual therapy in which the therapist actually has sex with the patient in their ‘sessions.’

That’s when Cheryl (Helen Hunt) comes into the picture. After an awkward introduction where Mark sort of treats her like a prostitute, Cheryl firmly informs him that there’s a major distinction between that and her profession. ‘A prostitute wants repeat business, Mark, we don’t,’ she asserts, ‘and the maximum number of sessions we could have is six.’

The Sessions is a dramedy as there’s a good amount of both drama and comedy, but fortunately director Ben Lewin handles the delicate subject with care, and perhaps him being a polio survivor himself helps him present an insider perspective on someone dealing with that condition. Now, even though the sexual scenes are not vulgar or uncouth, they’re presented in a matter-of-fact manner, which means there’s an ample amount of nudity, perhaps more than what I’m usually comfortable with. I realize that the explicit sex and nudity scenes are meant to illustrate someone who’s comfortable with her sexuality and doesn’t see sex as a shameful act, but I feel that perhaps a little of that would still go a long way.

Despite all the sexual activity in the film, the film is more about Mark’s emotional journey as much as his physical one. What Cheryl did is more than just help him lose his virginity, she also helps Mark experience the emotional intimacy that he’s longed for all his life. I love how she values him as a beautiful human being, instead of just a patient, which in turns helps with his self image. There’s a scene where they both are having coffee and she has no qualms about pretending that Mark was her husband. Mark’s reaction is heart-wrenching. It’s just one of the many testaments of the resilience of the human soul shown in the film.

John Hawkes should get an Oscar nomination for his physically-challenging role, being confined to a bed/stretcher the entire film. He could only act with his facial expressions and boy did he pull it off beautifully. Every little tick and facial muscle communicates so much, plus he has such a charming and sweet presence on screen, Mark is never devoid of wit, thanks to the sharp script, also written by Lewin.

Helen Hunt gave a fearless performance as Cheryl, she effortlessly strips down not only physically but mentally as well, as the therapist became just as affected by the sessions as the patient. For someone nearing 50, she still has an amazing figure, though like many actresses in Hollywood, she seems to have become the victim of the Botox fiasco as her face just looks like it’s been pulled back way too tightly.

I LOVE William H. Macy in his droll comedic role as Father Brendan, his deadpan expressions as he listens intently and patiently to Mark’s graphic retelling of his um, sexual escapades is wickedly funny. In fact, every time he shows up on screen, the theater practically erupts in laughter. I’m also impressed by Moon Bloodgood (doesn’t she have the best name in Hollywood or what?), who plays against type as Mark’s assistant. I remember her in Terminator Salvation as a sexy, bad ass girl fighter who falls for the cyborg Marcus, but this understated but sympathetic role shows that she definitely can act.

Like I’ve alluded to before, I do feel that the nudity aspect is perhaps a bit overdone, it just seems over-indulgent to me. Fortunately, despite some uncomfortable scenes, I find this film emotionally engaging and wonderfully-acted. Kudos to Ben Lewin for crafting this touching story about a seldom-discussed subject and injects it with equal humor and poignancy. There is a clear message about living life to the fullest despite one’s physical limitations, but there’s also an underlying theme the transformative power of love and acceptance that a sex act alone cannot achieve.

4 out of 5 reels


Thoughts on this film and/or any of the actors? Well, let’s hear it!

36 thoughts on “TCFF Day 5: ‘The Sessions’ Review

  1. Saw this flick a few weeks ago in a sneak preview and loved it. I definitely agree that Hawkes should get an Oscar nod. And given the fact that Helen Hunt is naked through most of the picture, I found it interesting that this is a remarkably unsexy film. Definitely worth recommending.

    • Hey there Liz! I was hoping to see you at TCFF, I ran into Mike at MIMA Summit and gave him the schedule :) Glad you have seen this one and loved it. Ahah yeah, very true that it’s not a sexy film, but definitely heart-warming and very funny!

  2. This film has quite an impact on many different levels. Every cast member was perfect for their role. And a dramedy it is! I can’t believe there were so many laugh-out-loud moments, mostly courtesy of William H. Macy, but no surprise there. And I really like that they didn’t cast a younger Cheryl… Helen Hunt performed exactly as you would guess a professional in her field would… mostly matter-of-factly, but with great pathos too. Just one last thing… Kids in Carpool Alert… level Orange! Kids in Carpool Alert… level Orange! (Thank you Ian and Margery in the Morning ;-D)

    • Hi Becky, glad to see this with you. Macy is just wonderful isn’t he? And yeah, glad to see a ‘real’ woman in the role of Cheryl, Hunt looks great and as you know, she’s no spring chicken! Ahah, that’s a funny warning indeed, and yeah, glad I didn’t see any kids watching The Sessions!

  3. Very well laid out review. To be honest this was a movie that at first interested me. But the more and more I read the more I became skeptical of the whole film. Of course there is the sex and nudity that has been all the buzz specifically involving Helen Hunt. But I was also concerned William H Macy’s character. It looked like a pretty flippant handling of ministers/spirituality from the trailer. I’m certainly not automatically discrediting the movie, just curious in these regards. That’s another reason I really appreciate YOUR take on the film.

    • I hear ya Keith, and as a person of faith myself, I did have trepidation about it but I actually think the spirituality aspect was not done in a disrespectful manner. I mean, though the film didn’t elaborate too much on it, it’s obvious that Father Brendan is quite conflicted when Mark asked his permission to do the deed. Mark himself is a devout Catholic and he remains a believer throughout the film. I understand your skepticism but I’d still recommend you to check it out perhaps in rental? Thanks Keith.

  4. Marvellous review Ruth. Again, you have delivered the (very) first review I’ve read in this film. You’re getting your opinion across before the well-paid critics are and added to which, I hold your taste in much higher regard. I’ll certainly be checking this film out. It sounds great.

  5. I’m really glad you reviewed this Ruth, because I think you and have similar preferences re: sex & violence in movies. I thought it would be good based on the trailer, but you know…I’ve been fooled before :) I’m glad the relationship is handled well. TCM has a series on Tuesdays this month called “The Projected Image: A HIstory of Disability in Film” & basically I’ve learned that very very few films depict people with disabilities as people.

    • Hi Paula, your last line says it all. That’s what I like about this film because it paints a real portrayal of a disabled person, not simply a ‘victim’ but a thriving individual who are accomplished, witty but also have struggles like the rest of us. It’s a moving portrait that makes all the sexual stuff um, bearable if you will, though I still think the nudity could’ve been reined in more.

    • Oh Paula, there you go again, reminding me that Comcast took away TCM and put it in a more expensive tier that I refuse to upgrade too! It seems like TCM is creating more original content, and I’d really like to see the series AHODIF, and I wish there was somewhere where I could go to see great series like this, along with the series they did a few years back on movie moguls. Despite my disdain (for Comcast, not you ;-D), glad you told us about this series.

  6. Sounds like quite the intriguing premise although something I’ve never heard of. I’ll definitely give it a rental after your positive review, Ruth. Looking forward to your Silver Linings Playbook review, sadly I have to work that evening so I won’t be there to see it :(

    • Bummer Castor, I thought you could make it. Boy you seem to be working sooo many hours these days man, I hope you get some rest at least on the weekend.

  7. Nice review Ruth, not a film I’m interested in seeing but it’s nice to see Helen Hunt working again. She sort of disappeared after her TV show went off the air.

    I’m still sick as a dog, I’ll let you know if I can make it to the festival later this week and maybe we can meet up and catch a flick.

  8. Wonderful review, Ruth! Woah. I don’t think I would’ve recognized Moon Bloodgood if I didn’t know she was in the film. Really looking forward to this one. Hawkes and Hunt will probably get nominated, as will Lewin’s screenplay.

    • I didn’t recognize her right away, only until I read the full cast. She’s very good here, and the rest are stellar. I’d love to see some of them get nominated.

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  10. Really looking forward to seeing this. Unfortunately, it looks like I’ll have to wait for the normal theatrical release, as the only CIFF screening is sold out. :(

    • I think the TCFF screening was sold out as well, that’s why I’m glad I was able to get the tix reserved well in advance. Shouldn’t be too long before it hits theaters though.

  11. This sounds great Ruth, although just like you, this part:

    I do feel that the nudity aspect is perhaps a bit overdone, it just seems over-indulgent to me.

    is going to be a problem for me too.

    But I really like the idea of this movie and I always have a thing for true story

    • I think in Indo it’ll definitely be censored Nov, I mean it’s full frontal nudity we’re talking about, they even censored the opening sequence of Bond movies which is pale in comparison, ahah. Still, it was quite a touching story, I highly recommend it.

    • I don’t mind that Helen Hunt strips down once or twice but she keeps doing it over and over again, I don’t think it serves the story anymore at that point.

      • I’m so with you there, Ruth. Once, or twice at the very most would have been plenty to get across that Cheryl is a totally uninhibited therapist.

  12. Hmm. Sounds quite interesting Ruth. I personally have no problems with the depiction of sex in films especially if it has a purpose; sounds to me here in this film, the sex is an important component to the story but at the same time treated with some level of decorum in so much as it is the vehicle by which we see the characters’ journeys.

    A very well balanced review, Ruth. Gives me something to think about :)

    • Hi Iba, oh I think in this film the sex scene is integral to the story, and I think they did it with decorum as you say, not vulgar. I was speaking of the nudity that I think could be toned down a bit and I don’t think it would affect the story one bit, that’s all. That’s my personal opinion of course.

  13. I was so happy to see that another one of the critics I follow has actually reviewed this – over two weeks go I might add. Impressive!

    I really enjoyed this film. It was such a deft handling of the subject matter which could’ve easily deteriorated into poor taste. I am amazed this is the same John Hawkes that was in Martha Marcy May Marlene. The man is a chameleon. Helen Hunt also did wonders with a most difficult role. Great review Ruth!

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