Monday, January 14, 2013

'The Sessions' (2013) directed by Ben Lewin, 13th January 2013

‘The Sessions’ is about a sweet and awkward guy trying to lose his virginity.  He’s a poet, he’s sensitive, he’s thoughtful, and he's pretty good looking.  It’s the stuff of a thousand feel-good romantic comedies with one difference: our hero is paralysed from the neck down and lives inside an iron lung.  The film unflinchingly grasps this thorny problem, examining the emotional and physical practicalities of sex for the severely disabled.  And it does this while being absolutely hilarious.

This is a true story, adapted from a 'On Seeing a Sex Surrogate', an essay by polio sufferer Mark O’Brien.   He could only spend a few hours outside his iron lung each day, yet graduated from UC Berkeley and worked as a journalist, poet and disabled rights advocate.  He’s played by John Hawkes who immediately imbues Mark with a mordant, self deprecating humour.  It’s a hell of a role to play, spending the entire film unable to move anything except your head puts some pretty big restrictions on what an actor can and can’t do.   

John Hawkes as Mark O'Brien
Restrictions like these make the part initially feel like pre-packaged Oscar-bait, and comparisons to roles like Christy Brown in ‘My Left Foot’ are inevitable.  Mark’s dignity and self-assuredness as he struggles not to let his life be entirely defined by his condition are powerful, moving and inspiring.  But, smartly, ‘The Sessions’ isn’t a 'big and important' film, it’s self-contained, light-hearted and frequently overtly farcical.  This is a film that’s not afraid to look the elephant in the room square in the eye: a man who can’t move his body is going to have a difficult sex life.

The sessions of the title refer to Mark's visits to his ‘sex surrogate’, Christy Cohen-Greene, as played by Helen Hunt.  She’s a fascinating character, someone who treats sex and eroticism in an extremely matter-of-fact way yet never without intimacy and warmth.  From her first visit with Mark she informs him that she’s got a husband and children, and that they can only have six sessions with each other, both tactics presumably decided to try and avoid any emotional entanglement.

Helen Hunt as Christy Cohen-Greene
From the first session she has with Hawkes she embodies a kind of relaxed, easy intimacy that is rare to see in film.  She strips in a practiced, efficient manner, yet is still sexually potent.  Hunt is conventionally beautiful and looks great naked, but what's most disarmingly attractive is her warmth and easy friendliness.  Hunt’s character tries to define herself as an ‘all-woman’ to her patients, embodying mother, lover, best friend and therapist.  She's expertly conscious about how Mark perceives her, knowing how he feels better than he does.  Her problem is that while she clinically and accurately documents Mark's emotional state through the sessions, she ignores her own growing attachment to him. 

Sex is primarily a vehicle for titillation in film, shot from a voyeuristic, prurient male gaze, artful, graceful and aesthetically pleasing.  It isn’t like this in real life (well.. unless I've been doing it wrong..).  It’s a jumble of tangled limbs, falling off beds, unexpected cramps, bashing your head on stuff and seeing people making some very strange faces.  It’s sometimes farcical, sometimes clumsy, sometimes slightly embarrassing but (nearly) always great fun.  It’s rare to see a film capture this so honestly and even though we giggle throughout most of the sex scenes, we also understand that they're serious moments of character development.

It's refreshing to see sex dealt with like this, and you’re quickly disabused of any notion that the film is being in any way gratuitous.  ‘The Sessions’ treats sexuality and sex as essential components of the human being, stating quite bluntly a life without them is a life not fully lived. There’s a snag here though, namely that our protagonist is a devout Catholic, struggling with his own desires versus a doctrine that bans sex before marriage.  This spiritual debate is shown through conversations between Mark and his priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy).  It would have been incredibly easy to make Father Brendon the antagonist in the film, a character unfairly preaching mind over matter to someone who wants to be more than just ‘mind’.  But this is a positive portrayal of Catholicism and Christianity as an accommodating, religion with a God that will “give you a free pass on this one”.  It’s weirdly novel to see organised religion as so empathetic and helpful to our hero’s quest. 

Much of this positivity is down to a brilliant performance by William H. Macy.  He’s a rare creature, a priest with a genuine desire to help and comfort rather than hector and chide.  Although he spends time grappling with whether he’s able to recommend a course of sex therapy as compatible with Catholicism it’s clearly a one-sided fight.  This is a person who’s struggling to fit what he already knows to be the right and kind course of action into his entrenched dogma.   

William H. Macy as the impressively maned Father Brendan
'The Sessions' is a film stuffed with well thought-out, pleasant characters like these.  If there is an antagonist in the film it’s something as straightforward as our hero’s lack of self-confidence or his misbehaving dick.  While Hawkes, Hunt and Macy get big, attention-grabbing dramatic moments, everyone slots seamlessly into the cosy, supportive world that’s conjured. Standouts are Moon Bloodgood’s ‘Vera’ and Annika Marks’ ‘Amanda’, both of whom convey a feminine saintliness without ever feeling like unrealistic wish-fulfilment figures.  We explore these women's lives outside of Mark's social sphere, something that allows us to see them as smart, capable people with agency of their own.

The fact that everyone in the film is so damn nice and pleasant is perhaps a slight failing of the film.  While we're interested and involved with their various problems there is little urgency here. You can't help but agree with the message that denying disabled sexuality is an insulting mistake, but the lack of any dissenting point of view to frame this message against slightly dilutes it.  Aside from this, the  attempts to ratchet up the tension in the film don't really work. While we're explicitly told that Mark's reason for wanting to have sex is a a result of a sense of impending death, this isn't exploited as a kind of time limit.

Ultimately, keeping the stakes low keeps our focus tightly on Mark and the people in his orbit.  This is that rare thing, a genuinely inspiring story that doesn't rely on cheap emotional tricks or manipulating the audience with sappy cinematic romance.   There is an unfortunate societal tendency to infantilise the disabled, to treat them as if their minds as well as their bodies are impaired.  'The Sessions' disabuses us of this notion, telling us to consider them as adults with the same desires and urges as anyone else.  This results in an unembarrassed, clear-headed look at sexuality, making this one of the most emotionally mature films I've seen lately.


'The Sessions' is on general release from 18th January 2013

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