Featuring: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy, Moon Bloodgood, Annika Marks, Robin Weigert, W. Earl Brown, Ming Lo
Director: Ben Lewin
Writer: Ben Lewin
Australian release date: Now showing
Reviewer: rolanstein (one-word verdict: unmissable)
38-year-old polio-afflicted Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) is confined to an iron lung most of his waking and sleeping hours. Dependent on carers, who wash, dress and feed him and wheel him around on a gurney, he strives to live as full a life as possible, attending university and typing out poetry and prose with a mouth-held keyboard prod. He knows the pain of unrequited love, having fallen for one of his ex-carers. He senses that his time is running out and decides he does not want to remain a virgin. After seeking counsel from his priest and confidante Father Brendan (William H. Macy), and with the support of his current carer (Moon Bloodgood), he contracts a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt). Based on the autobiographical writings of the real-life Mark O’Brien.
My usual policy is not to review movies that are well into their season, but after seeing this one a couple of days back I feel compelled to write it up. My motivation is two-fold.
Firstly, the cinema was almost empty, and I fear this gem is destined to be pulled early. This is an injustice. I rate The Sessions as one of the year’s best – if not the best. The least I can do is review it in the hope of persuading a few more people to bother attending before the season ends.
Secondly, I am a tad pissed off by the slightly patronising tone of some of the critiques I’ve skimmed through. The critical response has been overwhelmingly positive, but frequent categorisations of the movie as a ‘dramedy’ and references to director Ben Lewin’s “light-hearted” treatment of the severely disabled lead character’s quest for sexual experience have the effect of muting praise that should be strident and unequivocal.
“Light-hearted” should not be taken to mean light-weight! And this is NOT a ‘dramedy’, awright? It’s the most poignant of dramas – ultimately a hymn to humanity, no less – that tracks and celebrates the courage of a man who transcends the dire limitations of severe physical disablement through resilience of spirit and a burning determination to wring as much as possible from the miserable hand life has dealt him.
Having himself contracted polio as a child, US-based Australian writer/director Ben Lewin has obvious empathy for his lead character and understands full well the ironic response of the real Mark O’Brien to his situation; the expert lightness of touch Lewin applies to this remarkable piece is in keeping with O’Brien’s approach to life as recorded in his writings. Entirely appropriate, then – and dramatically, the humour works not just as a leavening strategy, but to highlight the courage of the protagonist in approaching all-but-impossible hurdles with a joke and a wink at the gods that have visited such cruelty upon him. Sentimentality has no place in this movie, which is all the more moving for its absence.
I noted some critic on Rotten Tomatoes whinging about the film showing only a small aspect of O’Brien’s life. I’m tempted to prescribe this dolt a thorough reading of Aristotle’s Poetics, specifically the parts on dramatic unity of time, but that’s oh so archaic, so simply unfashionable dahling, in these enlightened times. So I’ll just dismiss this bloke as one of many whose appreciation seems limited by the notion that this is a movie about sex.
Well, to be fair (though it hurts), yes it is, and confronting in its openness – but it is so much more. First sex is a significant landmark in anyone’s life, but in O’Brien’s it is momentous. His is a truly epic journey writ small, comprising only a few sessions with a contracted sex therapist, but during these intense and confronting hours he slays the demons of his religion-based guilt, of his physical restraints and the self-image that accompanies them, breaking through to claim the full expression of adulthood that his crippling condition has denied him, challenging and enriching those who support him in his seemingly audacious quest.
In retaining focus on these few profoundly meaningful days of O’Brien’s life, the script gives the lead actors, John Hawkes and Helen Hunt, full rein to explore the emotional depths of their characters. It’s a big ask, yielding their bodies and psyches to the unrelenting glare of the spotlight like this. But with what grace and dignity they rise to the challenge!
Both are wonderful, both give career-defining performances. Critics often bang on about the courage an actor brings to a role, and I do confess I usually recoil with a mean-minded inner retort (like, “really?…as courageous as going to the dentist?”). This performance of Hunt’s, though, is really something else. Acting just doesn’t get any rawer, any gutsier than this. She sheds her clothes, she sheds her skin. There is nowhere to hide.
William H. Macy is terrif as O’Brien’s long-haired, subversive priest. There’s a delicious irony in his opening the moral door to his parishioner’s quest to lose his virginity. Gazing up at the Crucifix high on the wall as if in consultation, Macy delivers one of the best lines of the movie: “In my heart, I feel He’ll give you a free pass on this one. Go for it!”
All the supporting actors are perfectly cast; all turn in terrific performances.
Good ol’ At The Movies co-host Margaret Pomeranz remarked of The Sessions, “it’s not something I would rush out to see”. I suspect many will identify with her attitude (she went on to add “but, in fact, it’s such a lovely, nourishing experience, this film” and awarded it 4 stars).
Indeed, on the face of it, a movie about a crippled 38-year-old hiring a sex surrogate to lose his virginity does not present as an appealing night out. However, when you realise that the saline streaks down your cheeks are not only for O’Brien and the courage and dignity of his good battle fought and won, but for the whole crippled lot of us, that his struggle for fulfilment and self-expression and intimate contact with another is also our struggle, and one many of us negotiate far more meekly and less successfully than he, this modest little low-budget flick becomes something far larger than its obvious subject matter.
Faultless screenplay. Performances deserving of the highest accolades. The most moving film I have seen for a long time, at once exhilarating and heartbreaking. What else do I have to say? Please see it. And if you miss out, get the DVD/Blu-ray. Sadly, it probably won’t be long before it’s available.
For other Boomtown Rap movie reviews, see Movie Review Archives