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!