Cinema Guyd: The Lesson of The Sessions

Andrew Tibbetts
Authored by
Andrew Tibbetts

November 22, 2012
4:07 a.m.

I saw The Sessions a few days ago but it’s taken me time to put my response into words. The first draft was (maybe) a little over the top — “OMG OMG OMG best movie ever!”–and might have been more about how starved I am for a smart, sexy movie about real people than a purely constructive review. Too bad these “smaller” movies are overlooked in the media’s rush to the Twilight trough and the Comic-book cornucopia. Has ever so much attention been lavished on such garbage?

I thought the increase in different kinds of media was supposed to result in celebrating niches. Instead, everyone seems herded together around one bad book, one stupid movie, one dumb celebrity. So I really want to be able to promote just why this is the movie you should see this month, or in the next few months when it comes out on DVD. I can’t shake the overwhelming feeling that this is something really, really special. Seriously: OMG!

Oh, yeah, the plot: Mark O’Brien can move his head a bit, but thanks to polio the rest of his body, his curly tiny body, just lies there. He has sensation, he’s not paralyzed, which means when he gets an itch he has to talk to himself (“scratch it with your mind, scratch it with your mind, scratch it with your mind”). But what about sexual itches? Pushing 40, he’s a virgin. And because he’s a poet, he’s a Romantic, and quite articulate about the painful need, what it means to his full essence as a man, with a body and a soul. Oh, he’s also a Catholic. Which means that when he gets the idea to hire a sexual surrogate, he has to run the plan by his priest.

Let’s start the laudation of the actors in this film with William H. Macy as the priest. Macy has turned in so many brilliant quirky characters in his fantastic career that one imagines he can phone it in: show up on set, be a genius, go home in time for an early dinner with the missus (Felicity!)

His Father Brendan is a pragmatic, whole-hearted philosopher, a salt-of-the-earth fully rounded human being and a bit of a slacker. If more priests were like this the Church’d be in better hands. The man brings beer on home visits! When Mark asks him if it’d be okay to hire a sex surrogate, Father’s eyes pull back under his bushy brows; you can see the thoughts and feelings battle it out in his shaggy head. He turns toward the altar and has a moment with his maker. He turns back, tilts his head to look Mark in the eye, and says, “In my heart, um, I feel God’ll give you a pass on this one (pause)–Go for it!”

And in that pause, the actor gives us the kind of human insight only actors can give us: Here is a man who has to figure out what he knows by saying it out loud first. It’s a magical pause. He goes into the line unsure and wrestling. He comes out of it majestic and convinced.

One of the many charms of this movie is the growing of this beautiful and complicated relationship between confessor and penitent. It’ll make kids wanna grow up to be ministers in the same way Top Gun made them wanna be pilots.

And so it goes: Mark hires a surrogate. A sexual surrogate is not a prostitute, but rather a sex therapist. Although some might quibble about the distinction since it involves actually doing it. But really, a surrogate is psychotherapist and a physiotherapist in one, who teaches you and heals you so that can move forward in your sex life. And it includes actually doing it.

Helen Hunt. May the universe bless her with a long life so that we can receive the glory of a long sequence of characters, fascinating women of all the “certain ages”! Here she plays Cheryl Cohen-Greene, the surrogate, with guts and vulnerability, as smart as she is sexy as she is sensitive. The actress is full-on naked half the time, physically and emotionally. Plus she does it all with a Boston accent as good as Jessica Lange’s on American Horror Story: Asylum. You can smell the saltwater. What she does for Mark in their sessions is the most profound and precious thing you’ll be privileged to witness in the cinema this year, maybe this decade, maybe in your movie-going lifetime. Kids watching this are gonna want to grow up to be sex therapists in the same way Song of Bernadette made them want to be nuns.

But there’s more to this woman than that. We get glimpses of her crackly, ordinary home life with smart-ass teenage son and phlegmatic husband. When she speaks her session notes into her tape recorder at night, we feel the counter transference she’s not sharing with the machine. This sex work is stirring and intimate in ways her family life isn’t, and it’s troubling her.

The main body of the movie is the actual sex sessions between O’Brien and Cohen-Greene. The only other American film I can think of that didn’t shy from sex in its full awkward, funny, sad, weird, gorgeous glory is Shortbus, also coincidentally about a female therapist. Although The Sessions is probably more like something you can take your mom to.

The heart of the film is the disabled man, Mark O’Brien. Limited to a few turns of his head and an adenoidal rasp of a voice, tethered to a twist of flesh, John Hawkes gives the performance of his career. He’s stunned us in little roles and ensemble pieces, but here is a full-on star-turn moment. It’s an Oscar sure win, but that’s the least of it. There’s not a whiff of sentimentality or sanctimony. His character is a human being, a lovely one, funny, good-heated, questioning, rather mild. This isn’t the full-throated symphony of Daniel Day Lewis’s Christie Brown from My Left Foot, this is a string quartet, earthy, melodic, crystal clear, and gentle. Mark O’Brien is the person you wish you could hang out with. He’s a real person and this is a true story, but he died. Which pisses me off so deeply I want to smack myself. He’s so smart and nice and progressive he’s practically Canadian.

The other characters are mostly Personal Support Workers who help Mark. He has to spend most of his time in an iron lung, although from there he can dial the phone with a stick in his mouth. I’m tired of superheroes. You know who are really heroes? Personal Support Workers. This is their Top Gun, their Song of Bernadette. Kids will grow up wanting to be them. Pushing Mark’s gurney into vintage clothing stores, holding up the various purple paisley shirts, wheeling him home, undressing him, washing him, dressing him, this is a different kind of intimacy. Kudos to Moon Bloodgood, Annika Marks, W. Earl Brown, and Rusty Schwimmer, and the real-life PSWs, nurses, and helping professionals out there!

Intimacy: that’s what this movie is about. All kinds: physical, sexual, emotional, spiritual, and even community intimacy. It’s about how human beings have to connect to other human beings to fully be themselves. The enemy here is loneliness, and man!—does it have an arsenal! People have to be brave. This movie will make you brave.

Yup. What more is there to say? Ben Lewin is the director and he’s sensitive, but unobstrusive, keeping the focus on these wonderful people. The technical effects are ordinary–which means the cineastes won’t be too quick to sing the praises of this movie, but the editing is lively and the cinematography has a little shimmer around the edges. This is how realism should be done, simple, but with a heart of poetry to it. Thinking about it a few days later, telling everyone I know to go and see it, I still feel it: OMG OMG best movie ever!


Anonymous User
Martin Heavisides (Guest)
9 years, 3 months ago

Sounds impressive, and so do the generality of reviews I’ve read. Hope to get to it sometime soon.