The Sessions Movie Review

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

4 thoughts on “The Sessions Movie Review”

  1. Confirmed! Go and see it – will be interested in your feedback on Hunt in this one. I’ll be surprised if you don’t share my view. I don’t think anyone could have played this part better. But who knows? It’s a constant wonder for me – and I’m glad – that perceptions can differ so widely on this sort of thing. Keeps it all interesting!

    I suppose it comes down to your criteria for good acting, your mood and mindset when you saw the various movies that provided the basis for your judgment, and the personal experience and baggage you bring to a viewing.

    I know I can’t rely on my judgements some of the time. There have been instances in which my assessments of an actor or movie have changed markedly over time on a second viewing. I rarely watch a flick twice. My assessments would probably change if I was a DVD collector and habitually watched movies multiple times. That accounts for some of the differences between some folk I know whose opinions on movies I respect, and moi – but not all of them! And happily, much of the time our taste and judgments coincide more or less, which reassures us that we’re all vaguely sane and half-astute, and that there’s some order to our little worlds…


    A relevant PS: Did you see Keyser Soze’s post, My 10 Most Overrated Movies? Maybe it’s time for a My 10 Most Overrated Actors post. Wanna volunteer? I would consider it an honour to have a WOP guest post on TBR.

  2. Hey, rolanstein, I agree this is a wonderful film that strikes just the right balance between lightness of tone and gravitas of theme. The music does a brilliant job here of lending poignancy to the tale – did you notice it is mainly violins in minor keys, not too melodic, often sombre. It doesn’t overdramatise the action but it does provide a counterpoint to the humour.

    I thought too that the treatment of the subject was interestingly neither erotic nor prurient, and this had the effect for me of reducing the sex to a simple physical thing, when the thrust of the tale (if you’ll forgive the unintended pun) was to show that what happened between them transcended the merely physical. But I liked the straightforward treatment of the topic, and as you say, the performances were excellent.

    One thing I found strange was that the normalisation of nudity only seemed to apply to the female; the male body was always draped.

    Re Helen Hunt, I have no particular opinion of her as an actor, but thought she was excellent in this, except for her weird Massachusetts accent and pronunciation of the name “Mark” – a very flat, nasal “Mahk”. I can recognise that as a top-right-hand-corner-of-the-US accent but have no idea how authentic it sounds to a native USAn. Anyone?

    Finally, what would Aristotle have to say about a first person narrative from beyond the grave?? Seriously, did you notice that towards the end when the voice-over said something about “five years before I died”?

  3. G’day Karen. Glad you rated the movie as highly as I. Would have been surprised if you hadn’t, but as ya know, ya never know…

    Agree re the role of the music – powerful and apt in its evocative contribution (yet not intrusive – that’s a hard note to hit, so to speak). Actually, it’s clear we agree on just about everything, so I’ll skip the high fives and go straight to the other points you’ve raised that I didn’t.

    Point taken re female vs male nudity. Can’t say it bothered me, though. I suspect the difference was largely down to the practical: would have been difficult to show Hawkes as having severe scoliosis and the physical deformities that apparently Mark O’Brien suffered from. VERY low budget, so expensive post-shoot mods etc were not an option. Also, my take is that the emphasis was more on O’Brien’s POV. If you accept that, it follows that the nude scenes were appropriately presented.

    Yeah, of course I noticed the narration from beyond – how could you not? Twas a bit of a jolt, and slightly jarring. Clunky, even. I think it was a minor misjudgement – why not do it in standard third-person voiceover or text narration? Maybe Ben being a bit “clever” there. But I was so taken with the rest that I was easily able to forgive him. Can’t speak for Aristotle, though!


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