Movies based on actual events are often times focus on telling a story about things like heart, determination, will and at least something amazing that came out of it. The story in The Sessions is no different from the kinds of movies that I just mentioned. It tells a rare story of a man who was able to accomplish some wonderful things while facing life with a handicap that very few people will ever have to live with or experience.
In 1988, Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) is a man who lives almost every minute of his life in an iron lung. Because of his ailments that restrict any movement below the neck, he needs someone there to assist him on a day-to-day basis. He may be dealing with certain restrictions, but that doesn’t mean he’s completely helpless. Over the course of his life, he’s done some amazing things. He’s a journalist, a poet, he managed to graduate college and he appears to have an impact on the lives of others.
When he does need help, it’s basically to get him around in order for him to do his daily tasks. He pays his assistance for their time and effort and he’s extremely friendly with them if they allow him to be. His issues with assistants don’t come from a financial position or the workload that he gives them. His issue comes from finding the right person for the job.
That’s usually the kind of advice that he goes to Father Brendan (William H. Macy) for. Father Brendan gives mark the advice he needs, but he’s also there to listen to him as well. The Father gives him the best advice that he can, but Mark’s’ latest request is something that the experienced priest hasn’t really had to answer before. Mark doesn’t just want to ask him the usual questions, he wants to know how he should go about finally losing his virginity.
This is the latest mission in life for Mark and he’s determined to hook up with a woman. Instead going out on dates or hiring women who are “professionals” in this field, he hires Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt), a professional who’s not your typical “professional.” She doesn’t see herself as a prostitute and she loves to point out the differences between what they do and what she does. She’s a sex surrogate and there are a few things that separate from the usual “lady of the night.”
I’m sure Mark doesn’t care too much about what differences distinguish her profession from the others. He probably just wants to get down to business. She offers her services for six sessions which will help him not only have sex, but they will also help him understand what’s going on with the specific activities and himself. Mark hopes that this will fulfill his desires, but in truth, it may lead to things that he and everyone involved could not have seen coming.
The Sessions is a type of film that I like classify as a “critic’s movie.” There’s more than one definition that I use for that phrase, but in this case I’m using it to say that it’s something that critics will love mostly due to its style, despite it not having strong value in terms of entertainment. Some of these movies will appeal to both fans and critics alike, receiving a boat load of praise from both groups. But in most circumstances, a movie like this will be loved by critics, but ignored by fans who would see it as bland and lacking entertainment. I like to think that I view a film from both sides when I watch them, and I don’t think that I could have watched this film in any other way.
When watching The Sessions, I noticed a film that had a very deliberate pace. There’s not much music nor is there much of an ambience surrounding the environment. Here, we just get the story and the characters. This gives the film a very natural, realistic feel of normalcy through most of it that I didn’t originally anticipate. My original observations immediately after I read the plot had me believing that The Sessions was going to be an out-and-out comedy similar to 2011’s 50/50.
Instead, what we have is a film about this man being told in a dramatic way with a little bit of comedy splashed in it by John Hawkes’ Mark and William H. Macy’s Father Brendan. Outside of those two, there wasn’t a ton of comedy to be seen. What they put out is decent in some occasions, but none of it ever reaches anything above moderately funny. When the comedy does reach that level, it’s usually stuff that comes from Macy’s character. Hawkes portrays Mark as a guy with a knack for dry humor, but what he has on display isn’t always as funny.
When I think about it, the point of his sense of humor in The Sessions isn’t so much to make the audience laugh anyway. It’s there to show his personality and how he sees the world while being in a difficult disposition. I guess you can say that this is a part of the storytelling aspect of the film, while William H. Macy’s style of comedy is there for the very humor that I expected. When I look at it like that, I’d say they accomplished a good portion of their goal.
The crux of The Sessions is built around this man living in an iron lung who goes to a sex surrogate in order to lose his virginity. Going in, I understood that would be a central part of the story, but I didn’t realize that almost all of the movie would be focused on it. We spend more time in the room they chose to have these sessions in than we do anywhere else in the film. This is also where we get to see Helen Hunt’s character in action.
Because she’s the sex surrogate, we get to see her nude. I’m not talking about your normal Hollywood nude; I’m talking continuous nudity that includes full frontal. I can’t say this for sure, but I think she’s nude in The Sessions more than she isn’t. She seemed rather comfortable in her birthday suit and that really speaks to either her professionalism or her comfort with being butt-naked in front of a room full of people. Either way, it cam be perceived as a good thing from her point of view.
As a part of a roundtable of press, I was fortunate enough to interview both actor John Hawkes and director Ben Lewin about their film, The Sessions. Both of these respectful and respectable individuals seem to be very hard workers who love the craft that they’ve chosen as careers. That’s certainly something that anyone can respect, especially when you know some of what they had to do just to get this independent movie off the ground and into theaters.
That, because it’s a true story and the fact that John Hawkes is one of my favorite actors is why I don’t want to give this film the score that I have to give it. As a movie critic, I understand and respect many of the things that have been put into The Sessions. It shows some good qualities from Lewin as a director and proves that he deserves more opportunities than he gets in the film world. He hasn’t been able to get too many jobs doing feature films, and I think this proves that he can handle whatever job might come his way.
As a fan, I see this film as not having enough energy to pull it through as much as I would have liked. The Sessions is filled with subtlety, normalcy and an extreme sense of calm. I think those features with the lack of strong comedy is what does actually hurt the film to an extent. While that may be true, it doesn’t take away from the solid performances from the various being led by John Hawkes, who’s in a rare lead role for him.
Because of this performance, I’m sure that Hawkes will get a few nominations for his portrayal of this upbeat man who’s filled with positivity. I say that because not only is his performance of good quality, but he’s portraying a person who actually existed with a rare disposition that we rarely seen displayed in movies. Those factors alone will get him into the conversation for a few trophies. Seeing as how Hawkes is a veteran actor with who’s had limited opportunities throughout his career, I think it’s about time that he finally began to get noticed for the talent that I always knew that he had.
Director: Ben Lewin
William H. Macy
Film Length: 98 minutes
Release Date: October 19, 2012
Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures