Movie Review: ‘The Sessions’

the sessions

“The Sessions” — a film review by Gary Chew

The quality of decency is an interest of mine. Not so much as when the word “decency” is used in the context of, “Are you decent?” — which means you might be naked and someone else is being courteous before barging in on you in some cramped living situation or a gym. The bigger, more important part of “decency’s” meaning is … being so to others. Not … “Do you have on your clothes?” That’s what “The Sessions,” a new, frank film, bringing back the solid and confident talent of Helen Hunt, presents as the entrée.

And a lot of the time, Hunt is being admirably decent in this extraordinary film without a stitch on. She plays a sex surrogate named Cheryl. Her client is a devout Catholic named Mark, a role taken by John Hawkes — an actor all over the lot doing great heavies…and now, playing Mark, one of the nicest guys you’d ever want to meet in or out of an iron lung.

Mark, in real life, is the man who wrote this just-about-all true story of a forty-something guy over in Berkeley (where it was filmed) who was disabled by polio at the age of six, and has spent just about all of his time since in an iron lung.

Mark, as we can plainly see, is still a virgin. But a part of his anatomy “speaks” to him, as he tells his priest, Father Brendan, played by the very excellent William H. Macy. Mark wants an okay from Father Brendan that the physically challenged man can go ahead (if he’s able) and become knowledgeable of a female, Biblical speaking.

Sex and religion. Such sparks.

the sessions
William H. Macy in The Sessions.

Father Brendan is uncomfortable with fornication, but after earnest reflection, gives his blessing due to Mark’s extraordinary circumstances. Sporting long hair, Father Brendan tells Mark, “Go for it.”

Following a few foibles, he hooks up with Cheryl, thanks to Father Brendan and Mark’s therapist as well as other good souls who wish to aid this grown man “without stain.” Some of the film’s funniest moments take hold while the pair readies for the several sessions Mark will enjoy (…uh, maybe “enjoy” isn’t the right word as this point): From which Mark will benefit under Cheryl’s tutelage.

My jaw dropped a bit when, after asking Mark if it would be alright to get undressed (and Mark saying, “sure”), Hunt as Cheryl just steps out of her clothes … all of them. (Camera never blinking) The camerawork and the editing of the scene don’t seem concerned about what regions of Hunt’s figure flash briefly on the screen. The sequence is shot without exploitation, nuance or specificity … after a while people don’t seem to notice so much.

Except maybe that Ms. Hunt likely maintains a rigorous exercise regimen. She’s pushing 50!

You might think “The Sessions” is a sort of vulgar, tacky film about how a neat guy who can barely suck oxygen gets laid for the first time. Well, you’d be wrong about that, even though the film is rated “R,” and Mark does get laid in later sessions. He also makes an impact on the lives of younger women than Cheryl going forward in his humorous, upbeat manner. He writes poetry and for magazines.

The film seems ideal for a couple to see that’s in a serious relationship or a good, longstanding intimate association — not so much casual acquaintances … and definitely not your parents. Just act like you don’t know anyone else in the theater who’s watching from a few seats away.

The Sessions
John Hawkes and Annika Marks.

After becoming emotionally complex, what “The Sessions” leaves you with is much more than what’s been described so far. That feat is accomplished by the principal characters in the script all being terribly grounded … and decent. Some stories don’t get populated with really together and considerate human beings, and since this one is taken from real events, something passed through my mind that went something like, “These people are really cool and know themselves so well. They want to abide by the Golden Rule. That’s bit of a stretch, but a nice one.”

Several things make up why I believe a movie is good. Most are obvious, but what this film is saying, besides the way it was written, acted and directed, etc., plays as much or more of a role as anything else in making it good.

How many really well-crafted movies have you seen that don’t have much of a message, or the message given, flawed?

“The Sessions” is very adult. No, not because Helen Hunt walks around in her birthday suit, but adult or mature about what the film presents as challenges to principal characters and chronicling the several reactions of subsidiary figures following events in which Mark attains his … uh … goal.

Lots of laughing comes from watching “The Sessions.” And I wouldn’t be surprised if there are a few tears running down numerous cheek bones either. Happily, these more moving moments are as adult or mature. Not being cheesy makes this picture even better.

That which is cheesy is often cheap, but not necessarily tacky.

Positive vibes and mirth ring throughout, giving the film ever more gravitas in my book of good movies. Besides Mark O’Brien, who wrote the autobiographically true account, Ben Lewin did the script and directed “The Sessions.” Lewin is a successful, long time writer, producer and director of feature films and for television.

Backup players are well-cast. They are: Moon Bloodgood, Annika Marks, Adam Arkin and Robin Weigert. Ming Lo’s small role as a furtive motel clerk could cause you to laugh yourself out of your seat and onto a box without popcorn.

A decent time is likely to be spent seeing “The Sessions.”

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