By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com
Wilmington on DVDs: The Sessions
THE SESSIONS (Also Blu-ray) (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Ben Lewin, 2012 (20th Century Fox)
The Sessions is a movie about love and pain, sexuality and disability, poetry and confinement, the world inside and the world outside. Based partly on the article “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate” by Mark O’Brien, as well as his other writings nd life story, it is about O’Brien’s determination to lose his virginity at age 38, despite the fact that a childhood bout with polio has left him confined, for 90 % of the time, to an iron lung, with the extreme curvature of his spine, residue of the disease, forcing him to spend most of the remaining 10% in a wheelchair or lying on his back.
But Mark can still get erections. And he can still fall in love — which he does, sometimes with unhappy results, with some (or at least one) of his caretakers. He also can write beautifully, tapping out the letters with a mouth-stick, expressing himself and his world with wit and clarity, and with a near-absence of self-pity. It was that writing, in the article above and elsewhere, that led Mark, posthumously, to writer-diretor Ben Lewin (Paperback Romance), who decided to tell Mark’s story on screen. The result is The Sessions, one of the year’s most realistic and moving love stories, and a tale full of suspense, humanity and compassion.
We don’t often see stories like this on screen, and even less often done this well, or as filled with honest emotion. That’s a pity.
The Sessions (which was called “The Surrogate” when it played at Sundance) carries us through Mark’s determination to have a sexual life, to his decision to hire a sex surrogate — Helen Hunt as the real-life surrogate Cheryl Cohen-Greene — and their sessions together, in a motel room, facilitated by Mark’s caretaker Vera (Moon Bloodgood) and an inquisitive desk man (Ming Lo). Alone together in the bare-looking motel room, Cheryl tries to teach and gentle him into his heart’s desire. It’s not easy.
The Sessions takes place in California, and it’s the sort of story hard-core Californians, at least many of the ons I knew, like to tell and hear. The movie presents sexuality in a healing, lovable way, with wit but without cynicism — and what we see is a healing, loveable relationship, sensitively and knowingly portrayed by the actors. Helen Hunt, who has to play a good deal of the movie in the nude, as well as to simulate various sex acts that would have been taboo on screen for a distinguished Oscar-winning leading lady several generations ago, imbues her part with the casual realism of a professional, and the aches of doubt that come upon her in the midst of her job. (They are only supposed to have six sessions and then depart for good.)
Through it all, there isn’t a sniggering moment in The Sessions, though there’s plenty of humor — much of it courtesy of William H Macy as the Catholic Father Brendan, the devoutly religious Mark’s (fictional composite)long-haired, unflappable often wry spiritual advisor. (When asked if the deflowering is a sin, Father Brendan suggests that God will give Mark a pass.)
John Hawkes plays Mark, and it’s something of a surprise to see this hardy ex-Texan actor, who was so effective as the backwoods outlaw meth dealer in Winter’s Bone, just as convincingly play a man who can barely get around sunny California without help. But Hawkes communicates with great sympathy the reality of Mark’s disability — and he and Lewin do it most powerfully in one scene, based on life, where Mark, alone in his iron lung after the caretaker leaves, suddenly finds himself in the midst of an outage that knocks out his power. He has also dropped the mouth-stick that is his only means of communicating by phone to the outside world.
The actor and the film also convey what makes Mark so special as a human being: his poet’s soul and his ability to write and reach out to others, even under conditions of extreme difficulty.
Most of all, Lewin — along with Hawkes, Hunt, Macy and all the others, including two very fine disabled actors, Jennifer Kumiyama as Carmen and Tobias Forrest as Greg — shows us the primal importance of empathy in life and love. The Sessions gives us, believably and without mush or gush, a tender but tough tale of sexuality and love and how they intertwine. It’s a picture that, like the great films of Yasujiro Ozu, Vittorio De Sica, or Mike Leigh, conveys a real sense of life and humanity. Though you may think it’s impossible to tell such a story without at least a little sentimentality, Lewin, who has specialized in dark comedy (The Favour, the Watch and the Very Big Fish), will prove you wrong.
One of the reasons for that avoidance of mush may be Lewis’s admiration and affinity for darkly comic, irreverent filmmakers like one of his own favorites, Luis Bunuel. Another reason may lie in Lewis’ own childhood bout with polio, from which he recovered more completely, but not fully. This writer-director knows a good part of what Mark went through, and he helps us know it too.
The Sessions — which was a hit at Sundance, winning both the Audience Award and the Jury Prize for an Ensemble Cast — tells its story with a warm heart and a cool eye and without ever going overboard. Just like the surrogate, the movie knows never to push — but simply to do its job, honestly and well.
The Sessions, which opens in selected theatres Friday, Oct. 19, also plays Saturday (Oct. 20) at 7 p.m., at The Chicago International Film Festival. (312-322-FILM).