Day 187: The Sessions

"I believe in a God with a sense of humor. I would find it absolutely intolerable not to be to able blame someone for all this."

One of the most fascinating & interesting actors currently working is John Hawkes. He first showed up on my radar in 2005 when I saw him on Deadwood on HBO & then in Miranda July's film Me and You and Everyone We Know. It was his Oscar nominated performance in 2010's Winter's Bone that got him a lot of well-deserved attention, and he's been on a roll since then. Many prognosticators thought that his role in 2012's The Sessions would earn him another Oscar nomination, but it wasn't to be unfortunately. He's certainly the best thing about the film, and I'm always happy to see him recognized for his work.

In this true story, Hawkes plays Mark O'Brien, a man who was afflicted with polio when he was a child, and has been bed-ridden ever since. He's allowed to be out of his iron lung for up to four hours at a time, and he spends most of that time either at church or at the park. He is contacted by a local university to do a study on sexuality and the handicapped, and this gives him a sense of his own lack of sexuality in his life. 

He is given the number of a licensed sex therapist, and with the counsel of his priest (William H. Macy) decides to embark on a quest to lose his virginity before it's too late. Cheryl, the sex therapist (Helen Hunt) is up front with Mark about their sessions together. The ground rules are that there will be no more than six, and that it is about him becoming in touch with his body and desires, and not about him projecting emotions on her. Of course, it's more complicated than that, and before long, Mark begins having feelings for Cheryl, which Cheryl seems to somewhat reciprocate, in spite of her status as a married woman with a family. 

The film was written and directed by a man named Ben Lewin, who I was surprised to find was an older Polish gentleman. The reason I say that this surprised me is that after watching the film, I expected to find out that it was the product of some young film school graduate, since so much of the dialogue and particularly the third act situations all seem like the stuff of a rank amateur. The film gets so heavy handed at the end of the second act and start of the third act, that it actually almost completely came off the rails for me. 

I enjoyed the first hour of the film, and thought it moved well with all of the dialogue and situations feeling very grounded in reality, and well saturated with humor. However, the film takes a hard left turn into cliche-ville and becomes so absurdly over-wrought, I found myself becoming very disappointed in it. I don't want to risk spoiling the film for anyone, but the scene with Cheryl & Rhea Perlman at the temple & the next scene with Mark and the power outage were awful. They were the kind of thing that make me hate movies like this. I understand that it's based on a true story, but those two scenes in particular were nonsensical. Thankfully it rebounded a bit and ended strongly, but it teetered on the brink for much of the last half hour.

The performances were very good in the film, in spite of its heavy handed subject matter. Hawkes is a magnetic actor who manages to turn what could have been a "Simple Jack" style character into a real person. His eyes are incredibly expressive, and his work here is top notch. His role isn't as showy as Hugh Jackman's in Les Mis, but I certainly think he deserved a nomination over Jackman for Best Actor. 

Helen Hunt is also good, though her accent is a bit overdone. Maybe it's just because she has such a recognizable voice and putting a Boston accent on it sounded strange (very similar to her As Good As It Gets co-star Jack Nicholson in The Departed). William H. Macy is also good in what is essentially a plot device of a character. I did, however, like the way the film jumps around a bit and utilizes Mark's confessional sessions with the priest as a means of explaining some of his inner life.

Overall, The Sessions is a good film that walks the narrowest of tight ropes. It could have been a great film had it found a more solid footing and ditched the cliche-ridden third act scenes, or it could have been an awful film had the script and performances not been as good as they are. I don't see myself revisiting this film again, but I could see people thoroughly enjoying it. It's a very mature film that deals with sexuality in a light hearted but adult way, which is more than I can say for most films in this day and age. It's worth your time, just don't expect too much from it and you won't be disappointed. 

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]