Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Sessions

Directed by Ben Lewin.
2012. Rated R, 95 minutes.
Annika Marks
Adam Arkin
Rhea Perlman
W. Earl Brown
Robin Weigert
Jennifer Kumiyama
Blake Lindsley
Rusty Schwimmer

Numerous movies are made every year about getting laid. Excluding porn, the mechanics of the actual act are often left out or only briefly touched upon with the focus on the romance that will culminate in love-making. In The Sessions, how sex is actually performed is a major plot point. The issue is that our protagonist, Mark (Hawkes), was stricken with polio at a very young age. He cannot move anything except his head and is a virgin. Now, at age 38 and after being contacted for a story about sex and the disabled (he's a writer), he finds himself really wanting to gain some experience in that area. Of course, finding a partner is no small feat. Eventually, he begins seeing Cheryl (Hunt), a sex surrogate who agrees to work with him. Together during their weekly sessions, they try to figure out the physicality of the doing the wild thing when one of the participants is immobile.

Needless to say, Mark, who has only experienced rejection by those he’s interested in, becomes emotionally involved. This is where the movie really grabs hold of you. We wind up badly wanting two things for him. First, he’s so sweet and innocent we wish we could shield him from the seemingly inevitable crushing blow that will come. Second, we want to see him fulfilled. After all, shouldn’t everyone feel the joy of sex at least once in their life? Our two motivations don’t always work with one another. Through an astoundingly charming performance by John Hawkes, Mark is worthy of both our sympathy and empathy. Even though he literally lies still throughout the movie, he still manages an impressive range of emotion. Incidentally, given the graphic nature of the film, I imagine lying still wasn’t such an easy task. He’s becoming one of my favorite actors, having quietly built an impressive resume filled with powerful portrayals.

The flip side of Hawkes’ restraint is the unshakeable bravery of the work done by Helen Hunt. Not least of the reasons it has to considered courageous is because most of her screen-time is spent naked. Lesser movies use nudity as a tool to keep our attention, or to objectify. Even here, her character’s job description is pretty much being a sex object. The genius of the directing, the writing, and finally, Hunt herself, is they all refuse to let that be all there is to her. She’s a fully formed being grown from the Hollywood archetype of the hooker with a heart of gold, but is so much more.

Before sitting down to watch this, I had a vague idea of the subject matter and that Hunt was often in her birthday suit. Only a few days prior, I watched 50/50 so I was somewhat ready for a heavy drama about sex and illness. What I was totally unprepared for was just how funny this movie is. Though I’d not heard that it was a comedy, I laughed as hard at this as any 2012 movie I’ve seen, so far (I know it’s now 2013, but I’m still working on it). The possible exceptions being The Man with the Iron Fists and The Expendables 2. However, I laughed at those for entirely different reasons. Much of the credit for the hilarity goes to two people: William H. Macy and Moon Bloodgood. Macy plays the priest who befriends Mark and listens to his confessions. This has to be done out in the open because the gurney Mark travels on obviously won’t fit in the confessional booth. As you might imagine, there is much talk of sex which leads to some uncomfortable moments for both the priest and parishioners who happen to overhear. Macy’s timing is impeccable and his reactions are priceless. Bloodgood plays one of Mark’s attendants. In contrast to Macy, she performs her role in a perfectly understated manner. Her matter-of-factness about everything is the stuff deadpan comics dream of. All of this fits easily into the narrative. Humor and drama combine to make The Sessions a poignantly human experience.

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