[Review] – The Sessions

31 Oct

Title: The Sessions
Year: 2012
Director: Ben Lewin
Writer: Ben Lewin
Starring: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy
MPAA Rating: R, strong sexuality including graphic nudity and frank dialogue
Runtime: 95 min
IMDb Rating: 6.7
Rotten Tomatoes: 94%
Metacritic: 80

The film that came out of this year’s Sundance with the most buzz, being rivaled only by Beasts of the Southern Wild, was Ben Lewin‘s The Sessions, which was back then called The Surrogate. There it won the Audience Award and a Special Jury Prize for Ensemble Acting, was acquired for a huge $6 million by Fox Searchlight and has just now been released so that it can campaign it for some awards glory, and at the very least some really neat nominations are sure to come its way.

You see, it really has everything people look for in awards darlings: it’s based on a true story, it has a disabled character front and center played by a fantastic actor and it’s a crowd pleaser. The story is that of Mark O’Brien, the journalist and poet, the actor is John Hawkes and the disabling condition is polio, which had paralyzed Mr. O’Brien since his childhood. For much of his life he breathed using an iron lung and, at the age of 38, he hired Cheryl Cohen Greene, a sex surrogate, to help him lose his virginity. He wrote an article about it in 1990, his life was chronicled in an Oscar-winning short documentary in 1996 and in 1999, at age 49, Mr. O’Brien died.

Then over a decade later comes Ben Lewin, a writer-director who was a survivor of polio himself and was investigating for stuff about sex while being disabled for a sitcom project he was developing when he found Mr. O’Brien’s article and thought it was a very powerful story that should be delivered in film. So he got in contact with the woman who was Mr. O’Brien’s partner during the last of his life, as well as with Ms. Greene, and started developing this film.

The result is really good film. It’s funny and touching and heartfelt and proves that there can be grown-up movies that are about sex in very frank terms (the R rating this film got actually has the definition “for frank dialogue”). But yeah this film is just fantastic in how honest it is in its exploration of sex and disability in a film that is so joyful and uplifting. To be honest, I’ve heard from a lot of people who are much higher on this film than I am, actually, since I think the film itself is good and that it’s the performances from Mr. Hawkes and the rest of the cast that elevate it to near-great heights.

John Hawkes is now recognized as one of the finest actors we have around and it really is awesome to see him thrive. The man has been around since the 90’s, then was cast in Deadwood, starred in Miranda July‘s brilliant Me You and Everyone We Know, but really only became well known after his Oscar nominated turn in the brilliant Winter’s Bone in 2010, a film I gave an A+ to. After that he’s really been nailing it, with roles in Higher Ground, Contagion and another film I gave an A+ to, Sean Durkin‘s Martha Marcy May Marlene (I ranked his performance as the eighth best supporting male performance from 2011). Now this one, which will probably get him another Oscar nod, and a turn opposite his biggest rival in that race, Daniel Day-Lewis, in Steven Spielberg‘s Lincoln.

His performance as Mark O’Brien here is amazing, the kind of performance that awards so usually go to and that will probably bring to mind a performance from Mr. Day-Lewis himself, the one that got him his first Oscar in My Left Foot. It really is an amazing performance; he read every single thing the man he was portraying had written, he put a piece of foam on the left side of his back to get the posture of Mr. O’Brien, which caused his organs to migrate and debilitated his spine’s movement, he learned how to dial a phone with a stick on his mouth. All these little things to internalize this man’s life, and he succeeded tremendously.

Helen Hunt is also garnering some Oscar buzz of her own as Cheryl Cohen Greene, the sex surrogate who helps Mr. O’Brien achieve his goal of losing his virginity and she’s brilliant in this role, too. She’s obviously never been with a person like Mark, she’s exploring new stuff herself, with her one rule being that she’ll only offer six sessions. Their relationship is one of the best we’ve seen in film all year, they connect on such an intimate level that it’s impossible to look away and these two fine actors really get you involved in it all.

That’s the thing, though. The Sessions is one of those films that, as good as it is, is good because of what the actors do with the story and not so much because of what the stories does with the actors, if that makes any sense. Their performances, charming and vulnerable as they are, bring forth some small moments that are absolute gems to watch, but the rest of the film is just a modest enterprise, a sweet one that will win crowds over but that, for some reason, I couldn’t get myself to love as much as I loved the performances in it.

Don’t get me wrong, I recommend this film to the high heavens, it’s a fantastic film that will deserve the attention it’ll get, it’s just that a part of me was maybe hoping this would be an A+ and there’s stuff that prevents me from giving it a perfect grade. It has an actor that so brilliantly captures the powerlessness of a man, that performance will no doubt rank as one of the year’s best from a male actor, an actress that really handles her role superbly and another really good actor, William H. Macy, as a priest Mark goes to to get a blessing for what he was about to achieve. The performances across the board will make this film work.

However, as much as I loved the performances, as much as I thought the film was wonderfully sweet and moving and delivered some really honest stuff about issues many films are afraid to touch, I’m afraid I just didn’t feel a connection for some reason. Whatever, it may not be a masterpiece or one of the year’s best but if only for that reason, for the honesty it displays, it’s more than worth your time.

Grade: B+


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