Ask me two weeks ago if a small film about an adult man with advanced polio seeking the services of a sex surrogate in order to lose his virginity would make my TOP TEN LIST OF 2012, I’d turn on Lifetime, give you a mean side-eye, and say something sardonic like, “TV movie much?”, which I suppose is the polite-ish way of saying, “Bitch please!” THE SESSIONS, however, is a pretty fantastic movie. This simple, direct, unsentimental story from writer/director Ben Lewin, who himself has been living with polio for 60 years, won the Audience Award as well as a Special Jury Prize for Ensemble Acting at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. It deserved it.
John Hawkes plays the real-life Mark O’Brien, the aforementioned man who, when we meet him in the late 80s, lives most of his days in an iron lung. Transforming himself completely from his shaggy, threatening roles from such films as WINTER’S BONE and MARCY MARTHA MAY MARLENE, Hawkes adopts a quiet, droll, sinus-filled voice, allowing the humor and the intelligence of the man shine through, while always acutely aware that so much of his situation sucks. It’s a great performance and never begs for the audience’s sympathy.
Lewin is a smart director without an ounce of “Look at me!” virtuosity in his arsenal. His aesthetic is simple and thoughtful, yet just right. He cleverly allows the sentimentality of the story to be played out in the performances of the people closest to O’Brien. In his quest for joy, he meets a series of remarkable women. First off is Annika Marks, a young college student who replaces a dour caregiver played by the great (if underused) Rusty Schwimmer. Marks, for me, was the first indication that this movie was onto something truly special. Her performance bursts with unexpected passion. Next up is Moon Bloodgood as another aide. It’s a quiet, observant performance and Bloodgood, who is so good as the female lead on FALLING SKIES, truly shows that she’s an actor of considerable range and subtlety. Later on, we meet a hospital volunteer played by Robin Weigert, who in a few short scenes, brings her character to heart-melting life. Rhea Perlman, however, is the one exception here, in a tiny role as the administrator of a religious rite. Seriously, I don’t know why she took the part as it exists only for a line that shows the connectedness of our two main characters. Very very strange.
There were a couple of men in O’Brien’s life too, with William H. Macy playing one of them, O’Brien’s priest. With his long hair and stupefied looks, Macy could easily have been mistaken for a grown-up Jeff Spicoli, yet there’s not a real big moment here for him. It’s a fairly reactive role and the humor comes from the way he responds to O’Brien’s graphic descriptions of sexual acts. I wish there was a little more to his part than that, but he excels at what he’s been given.
Of course, I’ve saved the best for last. Helen Hunt, in the best performance of her career, commands the screen like I’ve never seen her do before. I actually thought she was miscast in AS GOOD AS IT GETS, her Oscar-winning role, as it seemed to tamp down her innate intelligence. Here, in the role of the sex surrogate, she is so matter-of-fact in discussing sex, in getting naked, and in performing the act, that you can’t help but feeling that this is one of the bravest actors on the planet. It would be cheap and too easy to roll out the cheap puns here. Oh hell, I’m going to, because they’re kinda fun: 1) It’s a truly naked performance (BING!) 2) She goes the FULL HUNTY (KAZOW!) 3) In this movie, we are treated to all of Helen’s Hunt (SHAZAAM!). All kidding aside, and apologies to PWDs (People With Dignity), Hunt nails the role. She looks pretty spectacular naked. With a sharp Massachusetts accent and hidden wells of emotion, this somewhat underwritten character comes to full life. I loved how she so very matter-of-factly described what they are to do with each others’ body parts. This is a movie about sex for adults. how she navigates a potentially volatile relationship with her mostly understanding husband (Adam Arkin), and in the film’s later scenes, how she becomes so believably unglued, questioning the very real feelings she’s developed for her client. I won’t spoil anything, but watch out for the killer scene in a car between Hunt and an unexpected character. This is when the waterworks started to flow for me.
Yep, I was a blubbering mess during THE SESSIONS, as was the rest of the audience. It’s one of those “Cry Movies” where you don’t want the lights to come up too quickly and be caught with a tear-streamed face. I cried during TERMS OF ENDEARMENT, SWEET DREAMS, THE COLOR PURPLE, and THE CIDERHOUSE RULES, but none of those weepies compared to the emotions that snuck up on me here. Here’s a film that truly earns the reactions it’s getting.
During the Q&A which followed the film and was attended by Hawkes, Lewin and his Producer and wife, Judi Levine, they spoke of their desire to not use obvious methods for wringing out emotions. It would have been so easy to fall into the “Please Love Me!” trap here, and everyone involved refused. There’s so much humor and charm and just the right amount of poetic beauty, from O’Brien’s own poetry to the wonderful horizontal flow of so many shots of O’Brien being wheeled around on his gurney to a heartbreaking shot of a cat. This sounds so much more maudlin than it is and why I resisted it for so long. It’s anything but.
Glenn Gaylord is an award-winning Writer/Director/Producer and graduate of the UCLA School of Film and Television.