Nov 22, 2014

Review: The Sessions (2012)

The Sessions tackles very mature ground with its story line and it's definitely not the kind of thing you'd typically see in Hollywood. That's why it's no surprise that it's an independent movie that managed to get its distribution rights bought by a bigger studio looking to capitalize on the film's success at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Slight star power and good performances also help. You got to admit that it's pretty impressive that director Ben Lewin managed to get John Hawkes, Helen Hunt and William H. Macy with a budget of only $1 million for the entire movie.

With a storyline centered around being physically handicapped and sex, The Sessions is a story that breaks new ground. It's based on the true story of poet Mark O'Brian who got sick with polio in 1955 and became paralyzed from the neck down. He required an iron lung to help him breathe but despite his handicap, he attended UC Berkeley and co-founded a poetry house that featured handicapped poets. The film centers around his experience with a sex surrogate that he hires once he decides he no longer wanted to be a virgin.


Genre: comedy, drama, romance
Directed by: Ben Lewin
Produced by: Judi Levine, Ben Lewin, Stephen Nemeth, etc.
Written by: Ben Lewin
Music by: Marco Beltrami
Running time: 95 minutes
Production company: Fox Searchlight Pictures, Such Much Films, Rhino Films
Distributed by: Fox Searchlight Pictures, 20th Century Fox, Big Picture 2 Films, etc.
Country: United States
Language: English
Budget: $1,000,000
Box office: $9,138,338 (Worldwide)

IMDb entry
Rotten Tomatoes entry

Starring: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy, Moon Bloodgood, Annika Marks, Adam Arkin, Rhea Perlman, W. Earl Brown, Robin Weigert, Blake Lindsley, Ming Lo, Rusty Schwimmer



It's 1988 and Mark O'Brian (John Hawkes) has graduated from UC Berkeley despite being paralyzed from the neck down due to contracting polio as a kid. He consequently finds himself falling in love with a recently hired caretaker named Amanda (Annika Marks). Mark's a virgin and wants that to change. He's quite religious though, so he sees proposing to Amanda as the only choice. He's unfortunately rebuffed and driven to seek help from Father Brendan (William H. Macy) at his church. Father Brendan recommends that he see a therapist which eventually leads Marks down the road to hiring a sex surrogate named Cheryl (Helen Hunt).


The Sessions opens with a pretty good look at how difficult it is to live paralyzed. Mark O'Brian has no choice but to be reliant on other people's help and can't even do something as simple as scratch his nose when it's itchy. There's also lots of embarrassment and shame involved and it's easy to see that he lives a pained existence. He narrates the movie, giving insight into his life and what he's thinking constantly.

What I find disappointing is that I feel a disconnect in terms of the emotion that's being shown on screen and the emotion that I felt. I can't put my finger on it but it's something that plagued The Sessions from start to finish for me. I could imagine what Mark and Cheryl were feeling in terms of their developing romance and Mark's struggle with paralysis, but I never actually felt any of it.

Part of the problem to me is probably the over-reliance on narration to explain what Mark is thinking instead of actually showing what he's feeling. It also feels a bit rushed in terms of Mark's other love interests besides Cheryl. (Spoilers) That's especially so for his final relationship with Susan Fernbach (Robin Weigert). They basically just get introduced and then Mark narrates how they were together until he died. The Sessions ends on a mushy note and I feel it would've been beneficial to cut the film after Mark leaves in the ambulance, after his dreamy and wonderful first meeting with Susan. That's just me though but I feel like it would've been a pretty nice and hopeful ending. (End Spoilers

Where The Sessions really is quite special is during its sex scenes between Mark and Cheryl. There's a real tenderness and honesty about them that is rarely seen in movies. It tackles difficult subjects and makes it all very accessible. It also doesn't try to overdo it with humour which was a real possibility. What we got instead was refreshingly frank.

John Hawkes to me is the real star of The Sessions and he got a nomination at the Golden Globes for best actor. He didn't get anything at the Academy Awards unfortunately, but he was up against a very strong stable of actors. The physical performance that he gives is absolutely flawless and he pulls off being paralyzed really well. From start to finish John Hawkes gives it his all, comedy-wise and drama-wise.

Helen Hunt is also very good in what is a very risque role. There isn't any male nudity because this is Hollywood after all, but there's of course tons of Helen Hunt being naked. She's very natural and it's definitely not every fifty year-old who could pull off what she does. It goes without saying that she's in very good shape. One thing that bothered me was Hunt's very botoxed forehead which was quite distracting at times. That didn't stop her from performing really well when it really counted though. Her Bostonian accent does seem to disappear and reappear at times though.

I still can't really figure out why I wasn't feeling the emotion of what was being shown in The Sessions. I knew it was there but it rarely left the screen. That doesn't mean that this isn't a great movie though. The performances are definitely up there and the story is more than bold. It's definitely the kind of thing I'd like to see more of. Hollywood take note: I don't want anymore of your glamourized sex scenes in movies anymore. 



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