Monday, December 3, 2012

Movie review: The Sessions

Helen Hunt and John Hawkes
The Sessions (2012)
Written and directed by: Ben Lewin
Starring John Hawkes, Helen Hunt and William H. Macy

Based on a true story. That sentence, so often found flashing across movie trailers and posters, usually signifies an inspiring tearjerker that will tug at your heartstrings as it works its way up the red carpet to the Academy Awards.

However, while The Sessions does have moments that will leave you reaching for the tissues, it's also a gentle comedy that touchingly delves into the most basic of human desires.

Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes) was diagnosed with polio at the age of six and, as a result, must spend the majority of his days enclosed in an iron lung. For those few blissful hours where he is allowed to leave his prison, he's wheeled around town by a string of caretakers. However, Mark, who went on to become a successful essayist and poet, desired a sort of physical contact that many often take for granted.

The film, based on a 1990 article Mark wrote titled "On Seeing a Sex Surrogate", focuses on his quest to lose his virginity at the age of 38. A devout Christian, Mark grapples with his religious conscience and his desire for a physical act that is deemed a mortal sin. In an attempt to come to terms with his inner turmoil, Mark regularly visits a local priest (William H. Macy) to unburden himself. After several meetings, Mark admits his desire for sexual fulfillment and his priest, in one of the standout moments in The Sessions, gives his blessing to Mark with a simple, "In my heart, I feel He will give you a free pass on this one. Go for it."

And go for it he does. He hires Cheryl (Helen Hunt), a sex surrogate who is assigned to six sessions with Mark. Her goal: To not only help him in his quest to lose his virginity but to help him find comfort with his own body and sexuality. Quick to brush off any association with prostitution, Cheryl is a sex therapist who also happens to take off her clothes in order to help heal her clients. The restriction to six sessions is to prevent therapist and client from becoming too involved with one another. It's a quick and effective way to cut the strings.
If nothing else, The Sessions is a film of performances, and great ones at that. Hawkes and Hunt carry the emotional weight on their shoulders, weathering their characters' personal ups and downs with gentle humour and touching maturity. Despite its premise, the film isn't about sex; it's about those basic human desires we all harbour and how we each work to achieve them.

Hawkes is a likely Best Actor nominee shoo-in at the Oscars this year. Speaking in a higher voice and contorting his body, Hawkes is only able to use his face to convey his emotions. A versatile actor who has really come into his own in the last five years, the Oscar nominee gives arguably his finest performance to date. Hawkes doesn't make Mark a character to be pitied -- he's to be admired for his strength of character, minus the cliched trappings of many films that revolve around a person living with a disability.

Hunt returns to the silver screen after a self-imposed hiatus and she's back in full force -- just as likable and charming as ever. One of the flaws of The Sessions is the manner in which it glosses over Cheryl's life. It stands back from her rocky marriage and forces the audience to watch from a distance. How does her career choice affect her marriage? And why does she fall so hard for Mark? What is it that is missing from her life? All of these questions, and more, are left unanswered yet, thanks to Hunt's quietly commanding performance, you're still drawn into Cheryl's story.

The screenplay, written by director Ben Lewin, is a little all over the map -- changing narrative point-of-views that leave the film feeling like detached fragments and vignettes. However, The Sessions is ultimately buoyed by the two standout lead performances. You only wish you had more sessions in which to spend with them.

FINAL GRADE: B+

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