Back when The Sessions (2012, directed by Ben Lewin) was in theaters, I ran into a friend of mine coming out of our local art house where it was showing. His praise of the film was effusive, particularly after he had ground his teeth at several other films that had been making the art house rounds at the same time. “So well written,” he said, “Really terrific.” I don’t remember why I missed it in the theaters, but I’m glad I finally caught up with it on video. My friend was right. It’s very well written. But that’s only the half of it.
The Sessions follows the travails of Mark O’Brien, a man who lives his life in an iron lung. He can spend short periods outside the lung, but eventually, he has to go back into it. This makes for a difficult life. O’Brien makes his living as a poet, having bucked the odds and graduated with a degree in English from Berkeley. O’Brien isn’t paralyzed, per se. Polio has left him in a state where his muscles work only indifferently. He is capable of love—physically as well as emotionally—but his horizons along those lines are limited. He falls in love with one of his caregivers, and tells her so. She reacts badly. O’Brien’s therapist suggests that he see a sex surrogate in order to work through his need for and issues with sexuality. O’Brien, deeply Catholic, talks to his priest about it too. The priest, Father Brendan, is skeptical, but gives his tacit approval. The surrogate is Cheryl, who takes her job very seriously. “I’m not a prostitute,” she tells him, and then proceeds to do her job. Inevitably, Mark falls for Cheryl, too, but Cheryl is married with children and wholly professional in her intentions. But she does fall for Mark eventually, in her way...
This film took me by surprise. In its broad outlines, this is the kind of film that defines "Oscar bait," in which the actors are given extreme parts to play in shamelessly manipulative human interest stories. I'm reminded of that line in Get Shorty when one character gushes about Martin Weir's performance as "the crippled gay guy." The leads in The Sessions are showy parts, or would be if the film was a showy film. Mercifully, it's not. The principle actors in this film are John Hawkes as Mark and Helen Hunt (already an Oscar winner, and eventually a nominee for this film) as Cheryl, and neither of them go for the big moment, the Oscar clip scene. Instead, they inhabit their characters as the best actors do. They make them real. Possibly too real for the comfort of award voters, because there's a raw humanity, a raw vulnerability to both of them. There are points during this film's running time that might be extremely uncomfortable to watch were the screenplay not so relentlessly warm and humane.
The other reason that this subverts any attempt at award baiting is because this is as sex-positive a film as I've ever seen. The United States is still ridiculously prudish about such things--something the film itself comments on with its patient explanation of the difference between a prostitute and a sex surrogate. The positivity, the awareness that sex is a primal human need even for people with profound disabilities, is uncommonly enlightened. This is a film that tells its story with sex scenes, which is bound to send the more puritanical members of the audience run screaming to the exits. Helen Hunt's sheer nakedness--not just her nudity--in front of the camera here is a level of intimacy that mainstream cinema almost never approaches. In spite of my distrust of Hollywood awards, I think she was robbed at the Oscars.
As I say, I was surprised by this movie, not least because I wasn't expecting it to be as funny as it is. Mark O'Brien, as poets are often want to be, was a wit. The core of the film's comedy comes not just from his sardonic observations about his predicament, but his frequent confessional conversations with Father Brendan. This part of the film allows for a certain reflexivity, in which the film comments on itself, but not in a jokey, Godardian sort of way. The film is framed as an inner monologue--one imagines that someone confined to an iron lung will have a rich and varied reserve of inner monologues--and its reflexivity seems more akin to a memoir (which of course, it is, given that the real Mark O'Brien died in 1999). The film further frames its story as an act of composition, because while O'Brien is working through his issues, he's also writing (in particular, he's writing the article, "On Seeing a Sex Surrogate," on which this film is based. This is generally playful, and John Hawkes is definitely in on the jokes.
In spite of my own killjoy atheism, I'm glad to see a movie that doesn't demonize Catholics and clergy in general (I get enough schadenfreude in real life, thank you very much). William H. Macy, playing WAY against type, embodies the kind of priests I knew growing up. He's not a scold or ignorant of human physical needs beyond a focus on the spiritual. The scenes between O'Brien and Father Brendan are, like the scenes between O'Brien and Cheryl, included by the title of the film, I think. I like this film's approach to O'Brien's religiosity. It's another need that this film fills with warmth and humanity rather than angst, and it anchors the film in at least one Hollywood tradition. Father Brendan is the kind of character that used to be played by Pat O'Brien or Barry Fitzgerald.
All of this comes back to the central fact that this is not, in its bones, a tragic film or a film with villains. It's true that O'Brien is narrating the film from beyond the grave, but this is almost an afterthought at the end of the film, but the story that takes we cinematic voyeurs there is mostly comedic, or at the very minimum resignedly mundane, with people who are recognizably human and flawed and resolutely real in spite of the conceits of filmmaking. The movie itself is flat and reportorial, relying on its actors (wisely) and screenplay to convey its meaning. This isn't a film in which the director imposes "style." The editing, particularly when underlining the screenplay's wit, is nimble, but not at the expense of clarity. This is a film with an overall sunny disposition. And when, in the final scenes, the tears do come--and for me anyway, they came in great heaping sobs for about three or four minutes--it comes by them honestly.
This is one of my favorite films from last few year.