Sunday, October 21, 2012

Review: "The Sessions"

Director: Ben Lewin
Runtime: 95 minutes

Being billed as "The Festival Hit of the Year" puts a lot of expectations on a movie. And, as is often the case, festival darlings often underwhelm once viewed in the broader context outside of the festival environment. Unfortunately, Ben Lewins' The Sessions is the rule, rather than the exception. A nicely made and touching film, The Sessions never probes its characters' motivations or backstories enough to achieve a resonance deeper than its modest-to-a-fault narrative. 

Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes) has spent almost his entire life trapped in an iron lung after contracting polio. Having successfully completed college, Mark has spent his post-grad years as an aspiring poet, constantly tended to by wave after wave of assistants. As illustrated by the film's opening act, in which Mark professes his love for an assistant who then abandons him, Mark's existence is a lonely one. Mark's life changes when two new people enter his life: new assistant Vera (Moon Bloodgood), and priest Fr. Brendan (William H Macy). Confiding in both Vera and Fr. Brendan, Mark confesses that he feels his time is running short and that he finally wants to experience sex with a woman. It's not long until Mark is referred to sex therapist Cheryl (Helen Hunt), who agrees to work with him. 

Of course, there's a catch. Cheryl is only allowed to have six sessions with a client. It's the type of set up that could devolve into a forced framing device. Thankfully, Lewin (who wrote the script, itself based on a true story), ignores the temptation, lets Mark's journey unfold naturally. Some of the most effective moments come when Mark's sessions are juxtaposed with Mark's conversations with Fr. Brendan, as he talks about his latest experiences. There's an organic nature to Mark's story that benefits the film greatly, and allows it to work as a story with real people in it rather than a maudlin exploitation of one man's trials and tribulations. 

The Sessions is the second film this year that has taken a look at intimacy among a marginalized group on the silver screen. At Cannes there was Michael Haneke's unflinchingly brilliant Amour (which begins opening in the US in December), which looked at the love between an elderly couple as one of them falls into increasingly ill health. Amour is certainly not a crowd-pleaser, but it manages to be sensitive to its subject matter and still be deeply moving, albeit in a reserved manner. By contrast, The Sessions is a much more accessible film, even as it deals with its own uncomfortable topic (sex among the disabled). Lewin's film functions more as a drama/comedy than as a grim-faced drama. That's certainly not a bad thing. The sense of humor comes through nicely in a number of scenes, and prevents the film from being a dull slog through Mark's struggles.

Lewin is also aided by the nice work from his cast. Hawkes and Hunt have a nice doctor-patient chemistry that feels well thought-out. Hunt in particular gets to shine as her feelings about Mark become more complicated. But even though the film's focal point is Mark and Cheryl's sessions, but other relationships succeed as well, including Mark's interactions with Vera (a surprisingly enjoyable character). Bloodgood plays Vera like a more mature, less sardonic version of Aubrey Plaza's April Ludgate. Despite her reserved nature, Vera is the one who forces Mark to go to his first session with Cheryl even as he has last minute doubts. She may be his assistant, but that doesn't mean she's just going to bend to his every whim just because he says so. Macy's Fr. Brendan is less successful, despite the humor mined from his encounters with Mark. Whereas Mark and Cheryl's are driven by nicely realized interactions, some of Fr. Brendan's scenes feel a little stiff, as though Lewin isn't entirely sure how to use their encounters to enhance the film's ideas.

And it's in the ideas department where The Sessions comes undone. Though the film builds to a quietly touching ending, there's the overwhelming sense that it could have been a much richer work. Though the titular sessions reveal some of Mark's past, they do little to explore what it means in the bigger picture. The most we get from Mark about his desire to experience sex is that it will make him feel like a fully realized man. Yet there's never any connection to Mark's past or his relationship with his parents or his faith to give his desire more weight. The problem is relatively similar for Cheryl. There's no real exploration as to how or why she became a sex therapist (other than a joking line about how she stopped being religious because of her love of sex). There's also very little examination of how Cheryl feels about her work, and how she deals with being a sex therapist and also a wife and mother. Mark and Cheryl's sessions may register, but they only do so at the shallow end of the spectrum.

As such, The Sessions is little more than a "nice" movie that does a "nice" job of tackling tricky subject matter. Lewin deserves praise for dealing with the material with such maturity, but it's a shame that he didn't also go into greater depth. All that's left is a film undone by its own niceness, one that exists as a pleasant and affecting enough viewing experience that fades shortly after you exit the theater.

Grade: C+

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