Piers Marchant on The Sessions:

November 20, 2012

Note from the monkey: While I was in Paris, The Sessions opened in Little Rock. We didn’t get Piers Marchant’s review into the newspaper, so the blog benefits. I’ve seen the film myself and concur with Pier’s take. I couldn’t say it any better and so I won’t.

The Sessions
Grade: 87
Cast: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt. William H. Macy, Moon Bloodgood
Director:Ben Lewin
Rating: R, for sexuality, nudity, language
Running time: 95 minutes

By Piers Marchant for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/blood, dirt & angels

In a certain kind of way, you can extrapolate a lot about an actor’s sense of themselves from the roles they choose. In this way, we can take an educated guess that Tom Cruise likes to consider himself the best at everything he tries; Russell Crowe wants to be an inspiring leader of men; and Julia Roberts just can’t help but be adorably likable and good humored. Many actors find this kind of marketable niche and settle comfortably within its confines. Meanwhile, more versatile talents such as Philip Seymour Hoffman, Michelle Williams and Guy Pearce work very hard to do the opposite. They never want to be pigeonholed into a character type. They don’t back down from any role — no matter how physically or psychically challenging — constantly searching for characters that will stretch their artistic canvas.

In this, John Hawkes surely falls into the latter category. From sweet innocents (Deadwood) to likable losers (Eastbound and Down) to psychopathic manipulators (Martha Marcy May Marlene), his characters are nothing short of thoroughly convincing and as well lived-in as a pair of old corduroys.

His latest challenging role, however, presents a significant physical obstacle in addition to everything else: As real-life emaciated polio survivor Mark O’Brien, he spends the entire film strapped to a gurney or encased in an iron lung, unable to move any part of his body other than his head, which is swiveled at an acute angle. And believe it or not, his isn’t even the most challenging role in the film.

Set in Berkeley in the late ’80s, Mark is a good-natured man, full of wit and fortitude, but as he nears 40, he becomes increasingly concerned with his physical place in the world. Specifically, he is nervous that he is still a virgin and will be for the rest of his undoubtedly shortened life. Consulting with his local priest, a bit of an iconoclast played by William H. Macy, Mark hears tell of a “sex therapist” — a woman who might be able to relieve him of his sexual burden with a minimum of fuss and anxiety.

The therapist turns out to be Cheryl (Helen Hunt), an older married woman who deeply cares about her patients but who also maintains a strict boundary line when it comes to the accompanying emotions of a sexual encounter. Mark, whose dry sense of humor is his defining characteristic, is thrilled but intimidated by Cheryl at first (“Out of my league,” he replies to her when she asks him how he’s feeling in their initial meeting), but in the course of their six sessions together, they grow truly fond of one another.

The sexual challenge before him has much more to do with his carefully guarded psyche than his obvious physical infirmity. Mark has survived as a complete invalid only by maintaining a certain arch sense of the world all around him, a coping mechanism that begins to fail him when he has to address the very real disquiet of embarking on a physically intimate relationship. It doesn’t help that Cheryl maintains her professional decorum, at least at first, to Mark’s ever-growing anxiety and desire for emotional proximity.

As can be expected in what amounts to a two-person drama, the film lives and dies with the performances of its leads, and in this regard, it does not disappoint. At this point in his celebrated career, the fact that Hawkes is entirely convincing as the self-effacing Mark is hardly surprising; but Hunt is something of a revelation.

Cheryl has to be so many things to so many different people — wife, mother, sexual confidante, therapeutic enabler — she has no choice but to section off her emotional lives to the various people she’s held accountable to, a method that is challenged mightily by Mark’s resolve to pierce through her practiced façade and connect with her in a far more deeply felt manner. Hunt, who is literally physically naked through a majority of her scenes, has to also slowly strip away her character’s protective emotional armor as well, eventually putting Cheryl and Mark on more or less equal footing. It’s a difficult challenge — one could argue even more difficult than what Hawkes endures — but Hunt, whose acting career has significantly tapered off over the last decade, is decidedly impressive.

Performances aside, however, the film is not without its flaws. As much as one can admire Mark’s wit and resilience, there’s a sense of the filmmakers stacking the deck in his favor a bit with respect to the other people he encounters, a gnawing sense that the film is trying to make more of him than even the character — if not the real person upon whom the character is based — would feel comfortable.

Difficult, too, is the transformation both Mark and Cheryl undergo in the course of their brief six-session encounter. One wishes the film weren’t so insistent on dutifully completing its character arcs at the expense of the protagonists themselves: Near the end, the nuances and carefully constructed evasions that Mark and Cheryl have built their psyches upon have all but vanished, and I wish I could say that change was entirely earned. Their complexity is reduced just enough to afford writer/director Ben Lewin a stultifyingly affable closure, the same kind of simple manipulation, it must be said, steadfastly employed by the film-of-the-week on the Lifetime channel.

For all its stark sexual encounters, then, the film utilizes a disappointingly standard bag of tricks to push the narrative forward. It may proclaim it wants to keep the lights on in the name of emotional verisimilitude, but in the end it’s all too happy to switch them off and hide under the sheets.

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