The Sessions (2012)
Plot: Based on a true story, The Sessions is about Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), a poet who contracted polio at a young age and now requires an iron lung. He wants to use a sex surrogate to lose his virginity. Eventually, Cheryl (Helen Hunt) is hired to accomplish this, and the two have a series of sessions together.
This movie was, the posters tell me, a big hit at Sundance. And true to form, it’s a pretty good movie with a slightly different beat to it, although it’s far from perfect.
The aspect of this movie that immediately sticks out is the frankness in regards to sex and sexuality. I’m still not terribly certain if this movie is actually awkward (by which I mean directed to be such and not accidentally) or that’s just a popular attitude towards the portrayal of sex in movies. Cheryl exudes confidence and self-assurance, while Mark can be described as nervous at best. It’s at times hard to watch but never too purposefully off-putting.
But apart from the sexuality, which I found refreshing for a somewhat popular American movie, the majority of The Session‘s success lies in the performances. Helen Hunt plays Cheryl with confidence in her profession and uncertainty in her emotions. When the dialogue trends towards effective subtlety–as surprising as that is for a Sundance hit–she shows the audience how her character is feeling, even if the feelings are conflicting. The complete lack of self-consciousness is captured flawlessly.
But as much as Hunt is getting huge acclaim, including an Oscar nomination, I think John Hawkes is the real success for this movie. For a man that is effectively paralyzed from the neck down, Hawkes manages to pack O’Brien with emotional and physical nuance. While O’Brien is outwardly awkward, nervous, sometimes obnoxious, we don’t lose sight of why he’s acting that way, and that’s largely due to the actor.
As far as the good goes for this movie, the performances are the bulk of it. The direction is perfectly solid and hits some high notes in terms of pacing and cinematography, but they don’t reach the levels of Hawkes and Hunt’s performances.
The writing occasionally hits some lows, though. While it’s probably a mix of the script and direction, there are definitely moments where the dialogue feels forced and the situations unrealistic. Hunt and Hawkes do their best, but this movie is about Big Talk, and when that happens in several scenes in a row, the result is melodrama. There are also some moments, namely one where a character that’s been absent for a long time suddenly reappears, that really made me scratch my head. I don’t doubt that it happened per se, but I didn’t buy it, and I don’t think a lot of people will.
But to end on a positive note, you know who else is in this movie? William H. Macy! He plays a priest who acts as a kind of therapist and friend for Mark. While I almost always love Macy, he was especially good here. He takes a character that reads as a modern-minded comedic device and makes him really interesting and engaging. His character is what I imagine to be a very Sundance-y favorite, but I think he makes a lot of the comedy in this movie work.
The Sessions has definitely picked up a lot of buzz since it premiered at Sundance, and I think it’s about what you can expect from a festival hit. It’s pretty good, definitely more honest than a lot of bigger releases, and filled with pleasant surprises. Still, it has questionable moments and misses some notes, but if you do get the chance to see this movie, then I’d say it’s at least worth checking out.
Next week it’s back to offbeat romcoms with 2012’s Celeste and Jesse Forever. Feel free to leave feedback, comments, questions, suggestions, or anything in the form below. I love mail.