The Monocle – “The Sessions”

Directed by: Ben Lewin
Written by: Ben Lewin
Released: January 23rd, 2012 (Sundance) | October 19th, 2012 (ST)
Theatre watched at: The Landmark, Los Angeles

“Why do you call it a ‘dick?’ Why not ‘penis?'” asks Mark O’Brien to one of his Asian caretakers. “Because…’penis’ sounds like a vegetable you don’t want to eat.” she replies. Oh, sex. Sex is pleasurable. Sex is funny. Sex sells. Sex really is everywhere, and whether or not you are comfortable with the idea of talking about it outside what goes on in your private quarters, well, your best friends are bound to hound you about it until you spill the beans. We treat sexuality immaturely in the media and in our social lives, but to unifying effect of course; it allows humans to take one of the most individualistic, intimate aspects of behavior and open it up to collective discussion and analysis. In the world of cinema, they treat it both ways: immaturely and on the surface like in the American Pie Series, or maturely and with depth such as in Sleeping Beauty (2011), or sometimes both I’m sure but to poor effect as I can’t even recall one as a good example. However, this Sundance hit that debuted at the beginning of the year under the original title The Surrogate, seems to have broken that losing streak. After gaining some wider distribution from Fox Searchlight Pictures, they retitled the film The Sessions (because I guess it sounded too much like that Bruce Willis movie) and here we are 10 months later where it’s getting a release in select theatres.

The Sessions has accomplished the rare feat of taking sex and simultaneously keeping it a mature as well as humorous subject; it’s delightful, warmhearted, and laugh-out-loud funny with some fantastic performances from John Hawkes, William H. Macy and Helen Hunt. The film is based on the real-life experiences of Mark O’Brien (Hawkes), a poet paralyzed from the neck down due to polio and has had to live his entire domestic life in an enormous metal, protective tube known as an iron lung. For the few hours a day he has strength to go out he must always be accompanied by a caretaker who pushes him on his gurney that is equipped with a breathing tube for oxygen; and you thought you had it rough. Overall O’Brien is high in spirit and approaches everyday like nothing is wrong, he even befriends a priest by the name of Father Brendan (William H. Macy) who he confides in often with any problems or questions he has. As with everything, his condition has also made it difficult for O’Brien to sustain a true relationship with a woman despite his kind, playful, and romantic nature, and therefore has never had sexual intercourse. One day he finally decides he wants to lose his virginity and to do it in a way that is socially and religiously acceptable, thus he gets a hold of Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Helen Hunt) who is a sex surrogate; some what of a sex therapist but one who will actually help O’Brien physically experience foreplay as well as sexual intercourse. From this experience O’Brien writes an article on the six sessions he’s given with Cheryl titled “On Seeing a Sex Theapist,” the real-life material that influence director Ben Lewin to make this film.

What can I say, this film isn’t a blockbuster, it isn’t meant to be an introduction to some long franchise with an ensemble cast of gorgeous, sparkling stars, and it really isn’t made to be one of those obvious shoe-ins to sweep all categories during awards season. All it truly is, at the end of the day, is a wonderful film that is well written and acted, one I recommend seeing if you’re looking to enjoy a good story with some laughs, heart, and a grown-up look at sex. With that being said, it ain’t a shoe-in but the performances in this film definitely deserve some recognition for some award nominations especially John Hawkes. If you don’t recognize Hawkes but you’re having a frustrating mental breakdown screaming, “I’ve seen him before dammit but where!” it’s probably because you’re picturing the evil twin Hawkes. You know, the one with the new era, Dastardly Whiplash facial hair going on that has only enhanced his iniquitous roles in Winter’s Bone (2010) and Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)? Before those two films, Hawkes honestly was a frequent, second tier supporting actor in many, many films. Personally I always love seeing him; he plays these short but sweet roles with all that he’s got and there’s just something about his character as an actor that makes it memorable (i.e Rush Hour, The Perfect Storm, Hardball). Now he’s been taking the front seat, and I gotta tell ya, his turn here as the sweet and frail Mark O’Brien is nothing short but magnificent; he plays O’Brien almost like an extremely mature and intelligent 11-year-old that knows exactly what he has planned for the rest of his life, and yet you can see it in his eyes during some moments, the fear and uncertainty with which his struggles have bound him to. He received two prolonged standing ovations for his performance at Sundance.

William H. Macy is hysterically perfect as O’Brien’s down-t0-earth best friend and priest Father Brendan who tries to advise O’Brien on his sexual escapades but can’t do so completely due to his inexperience, so he resorts largely to just listening to the “colorful” imagery O’Brien relays back form his sessions resulting in some hysterical feedback. Helen Hunt also in top form here, both in her acting and in her body. At nearly 50 she still has a gorgeous body that is as solid as her bravery. She’s practically full on naked 60% of the time she’s on screen and that is untouchable confidence by both her and Ben Lewin for being able to swiftly handle that territory so well. Hunt is the maturity glue of the film, her character Cheryl is a married mother who’s domestic life isn’t flourishing as she hoped. She has no real threatening problems with her self-absorbed husband, who is okay with her job by the way, but she is missing something and she isn’t ready to explore it. What Hunt does best here is producing internal restraint with no outward contentment and she just makes you feel for her even for those who have no idea what’s it’s like to be a wife or mother, which gives all the more meaning to her nudity, dialogue and actions with O’Brien.

One characteristic of the film that I love is that it sets itself up as one of those triumph of the human spirit kind of flicks, but doesn’t overemphasize the sympathy that goes with it with over dramatic scenes. The film stays light and funny all the way through and becomes more of a statement on the physical or metaphorical disabilities we all have in our lives and how we shouldn’t let precepts of society or religion stop us from achieving happiness. The best parts of the film are the sessions themselves as we root for O’Brien to accomplish his sexual goals (something I never thought I’d be rooting for or at least take seriously), while the scenes with Macy being the glorious cherry on top.

If you’re one of those people that can’t take sex or nudity seriously, for one, grow up, and two, don’t watch this movie. During my screening there was a man who thought he was making slick and witty one-liners in response to some scenes of the film involving the sexual activities, and he would just loudly insert them whenever he could and it was infuriating. I would also recommend watching this with someone, anyone, because a part of enjoying the film is being able to verbally discuss it with someone afterwards; the sex, the humor, it’s fun! I mean really, imagine yourself walking out of the theatre alone laughing to yourself about all of that…weird. Just kidding 😀

Bow Tie Approved

Bow Tie Score - 4.0