The Sessions (2012)
85th Academy Awards 2013
Nominated for 1 award.
Nominated for Best Supporting Actress (Helen Hunt).
Watched May 6, 2014.
“A man in an iron lung who wishes to lose his virginity contacts a professional sex surrogate with the help of his therapist and priest” (IMDB).
Well if that concise synopsis isn’t enough to at least pique your interest, I don’t know what is! This idea and plot line could have gotten very heavy very quickly, but instead the writers and director did an excellent job of keeping the story on point and moving. I wasn’t expecting to like the subject matter… at all. Instead I found it kind of beautiful, in a weird sort of way.
Mark (John Hawkes) is a writer and a devout catholic. More than that, he was crippled in childhood from polio and has had to spend a significant amount of his life in an iron lung. He has feeling all over his body but cannot control his muscles. He can only move his neck a little bit. He lives alone but has multiple caretakers, and while living to be 38 is something of an accomplishment, he feels very unfulfilled because he has never had sex. He finds an unlikely and very accepting confidant in a priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy), who is torn between his convictions and the reasonable arguments that Mark puts forward.
After seeing a therapist, Mark is referred to a sex “surrogate” named Cheryl (Helen Hunt). Their sessions are a big focus of the film, and while it is certainly rated R and Hunt is nude for most of those sessions, her very straight forward and yet learned dialogue sort of distracts the audience. She will only see Mark for six sessions, no more, and as they begin she is surprisingly clinical. The brilliance of this film is its specificity. Cheryl and Mark are both very vocal about everything that is happening. Father Brendan is a somewhat comedic relief that represents the part of the audience that is thinking, “this is bizarre and yet I get it.” Mark’s aids are extremely supportive and defensive of him, and as the story moves along, we begin to see the positive effect that he has had on the women in his life because they have learned to love unconditionally a man who, by all means has every excuse to roll over and hate his life, but instead he fights back for what he finds most important, and that is the love of a woman.
The story is definitely unique, and while I would not necessarily watch it all of the time, I found the experience strangely rewarding. It isn’t about the nudity–it is about Mark and his approach to life. The performances of both Hawkes and Hunt are magnificent and demanding. They treat their characters seriously and with respect–so much so that they embody them fully. I didn’t expect to find the story touching, but I really did. While its cinematography, editing, production design, and other aspects were all right and somewhat average, I like that The Academy recognized the film (and Hunt) in this small way.
Hawkes’ role was incredibly demanding. Physically, but especially emotionally, he rules the film with his performance. He has a self deprecating humor that shadows his deeper and more conflicting emotions that Hunt’s character Cheryl pulls out of him (through dialogue, mostly). He is very bare in his emotions, while Hunt is bare physically and much less emotionally. She has an extremely professional manner, but we get to see a little of her vulnerability in her home life where she has a family.
I don’t recommend the film to everyone. I think one needs to approach it with an open mind, although even with a closed mind one might still enjoy it.