Wednesday, August 8, 2012

MIFF: The Sessions

I admit that I initially bought my ticket to The Sessions because I am a fan of John Hawkes. I admit it, so sue me. I saw his name and my eyes lit up. Then I saw a picture of him in bed with Helen Hunt and thought something along the lines of, "Oh? John Hawkes as a romantic lead? I'll take ten!"

It was only after that I read up on what I'd be seeing on over the weekend. Written and directed by Ben Lewin, The Sessions is based on the autobiographical article by Mark O'Brien, On Seeing a Sex Surrogate. Stricken by polio at a young age (as was Lewin), O'Brien seeks to live his life to the fullest, graduating from university even while being confined to a gurney with his only limited use of his head and neck available to him. At the age of 38 though, thinking he's getting close to his "expiry date", he decides he'd like to lose his virginity. As a deeply religious man, he feels it necessary to consult a priest (William H. Macy) in order to proceed with a clear conscience. After some deliberation, Father Brendan gives O'Brien the go-ahead, believing the man upstairs will give the poet/writer/journalist a free pass on extra-marital sex. It's at this point that Helen Hunt enters the picture, as the article's titular sex surrogate.

It's not difficult to see why The Sessions won big at Sundance, including a prize for ensemble acting; the film is made by the performances within it. John Hawkes gives an Oscar-worthy turn as Mark O'Brien, managing to give a natural, warm, riveting performance with only the (limited) use of his face. His body too, is a sight to behold, twisted upward with the use of a contraption dubbed onset as the "torture ball". It's the type of performance that invites attention from the Academy, yet doesn't scream "HEY YOU. GIMME AN OSCAR. LOOK HOW OSCAR-WORTHY I AM." Helen Hunt too, gives her best performance in many an outing. It seems a bold portrayal initially, getting her gear off constantly. Yet it is noteworthy more so because of the restraint and maturity she projects, and the initial iciness she brings to a role that could have been all warmth and nurturing. Those are the two worthy of a poster, but a film doesn't win big for an ensemble with two good performances. Moon Bloodgood and Annika Marks as O'Brien's assistant/carers and Jennifer Kumiyama as a friend with Arthrogryposis who lends her bed all give great supporting turns. And of course, William H Macy is great. But then, his default state is probably usually somewhere in the "pretty great" area of description. His priest though, is understated while at the same time being darn funny. 

Back to the funnies though. Which is the one of the other really noteworthy things about The Sessions: it's as heartwarming and emotionally stirring as one would expect given the premise, but it's also incredibly funny. All the awkwardness and terror that so many would remember vividly from their first time "attempting full intercourse" with another human being is perfectly captured, to often hysterical result. The Sessions does this though without being crude or stepping into gross-out territory...which is no mean feat given how much ejaculation is involved. Apart from all the torture ball stuff, the emotional resonating, all that bizzo, John Hawkes should probably also be commended on his comedic timing.

Ben Lewin too, should be commended. He's made a - as much as I hate this phrase - life-affirming film, that urges all to live theirs to the fullest, and does it without being cheesy. It addresses O'Brien's Catholic guilt with regard to sex while managing to avoid casting a negative shadow on Catholicism. It's Oscar-worthy without Oscar-baiting, and moving without ever descending into schmaltz. Is there nothing this film can't do? I don't know. I do know this though: it's most definitely worth your while checking out when it inevitably gets a nation-wide release. 


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