Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Nothing will win you an Oscar quicker than playing a physically handicapped man, or taking on a serious dramatic role as an actress that requires nudity. The Sessions contains both of these, and it very well may make a strong push this awards season as an Oscar front-runner based on its strong critical buzz. But for me, a role – and a film – should bare more than a bit of skin to land an award. Emotionally, The Sessions is just as bare as Helen Hunt’s character through most of the film.
That’s not to say there isn’t some things to like. This based-on-a-true-story story centers on Mark O’Brien, who as a young boy became paralyzed from the neck down after battling polio. This restricted Mark to having to use an iron lung to breathe.
Portrayed by John Hawkes, Mark O’Brien is a timid but optimistic creature who wants more out of life than being pandered to. At the age of 36, he decides to enlist the help of a sex surrogate in order to finally lose his virginity and experience sensations that he’s never felt. Although he has lost the ability to move, he hasn’t lost the ability to feel.
Helen Hunt plays the sex surrogate, which is different than a prostitute…because she explains the difference in the film and forgive me for still not being too sure. At any rate, her job is to help this young man have sex.
If this premise sounds a bit absurd, that’s because it is. The film carries with it a lightness of spirit and a humorous tone, which offsets the uncomfortable nature of the film’s protagonist. Much of the humor comes out of O’Brien’s interaction with his progressive priest, played by William H. Macy. When O’Brien asks for God’s blessing to have sex without marriage, Father Brendan basically looks up, looks back down and figures, “eh, why not?”
Though we feel for O’Brien and his condition, the film never attempts to go deeper and that’s a real tragedy. We are supposed to sympathize with him simply because he’s in an iron lung. The film’s focus is on O’Brien’s relationship with Helen Hunt’s character, which leans too heavily on the idea that this all actually happened. It’s a good thing that it did, because if it hadn’t, it wouldn’t be very believable as portrayed on screen.
All of the talk surrounding The Sessions is sure to focus on Helen Hunt. She shows a great deal of courage, bravery and confidence in shedding all of her clothes, not in a passing scene, but full on and for long stretches (no pun intended). In some scenes, thematically it shows us the vulnerable nature of her character. Other times, it often seems unnecessary and dare I say, gratuitous.
It’s not that Helen Hunt gives a bad performance. It’s just that this is not an amazing performance. Now Hawkes on the other hand, has a lot to do with only his face and voice. His is a performance worth noting.
Beyond Hawkes though, The Sessions is all shock therapy. In other words, it uses graphic nudity to get its point across. Let the record state that I am in no way complaining about Helen Hunt appearing fully nude, topless, bottomless or otherwise naked for an entire film. I’m just saying that it’s a shame that these scenes distract from what could have been a more effective story.
Run Time: 1 hour 35 minutes, Rated R
Starring: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy, Moon Bloodgood
Written & Directed by Ben Lewin (Georgia, Paperback Romance)
Opens locally on Friday, November 2nd, 2012
Looking for a specific movie or review?