Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Short Take: The Sessions

This review was originally published on the Pol Culture website.

The Sessions, written and directed by Ben Lewin, is the rare uplifting movie that earns its uplift. It’s based on an autobiographical account by the late Mark O’Brien, a San Francisco-area poet and journalist. A childhood bout with polio left him a near-quadriplegic. It also required him to spend the majority of each day confined to an iron lung. He is played by John Hawkes in the film, which begins with him at the age of 38. He falls in love with a college-student caretaker (Annika Marks), but she cannot return his feelings and leaves his employ. That disappointment, along with an article assignment about the sex lives of the disabled, lead to his resolve to lose his virginity. Towards that end, he hires a sex surrogate/therapist (Helen Hunt) to see him through to his goal. The prospect of watching the film may seem a bit creepy. The discussions of sex are extremely frank, and the therapy sessions are about as explicit as can be within the confines of an R rating. But the sweetness and good humor win one over. Lewin and the actors keep one smiling throughout. And one cannot help but be touched by the final section, in which O’Brien finds romantic love without the baggage of anxiety about sex. The performances are spot on. O’Brien’s personality is charming and witty, and Hawkes is never less than compelling in the role--he takes the viewer right inside O’Brien’s feelings. Hunt’s performance is carefully shaded. The surrogate’s anxiety and ambivalence about working with O’Brien--primarily her concern about them becoming too emotionally attached--are palpable. Hunt also never has one in doubt about the surrogate’s professional ease when it comes to sex. There are two other notable performances, from William H. Macy as O’Brien’s conflicted but encouraging priest, and Moon Bloodgood, who delivers a droll, deadpan turn as his principal caretaker. It’s a modest film, but an extremely enjoyable one.

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