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Movie Review: Academy Award-Nominated THE SESSIONS Turns to Honest, Human Drama for Entertainment

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In The Sessions, writer/director Ben Lewin examines a brief chapter in the life of the late Mark O’Brien, a journalist and poet who spent the majority of his forty-nine years crippled by polio.  Lewin himself is a polio survivor, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if he used O’Brien’s story to promote a more traditionally life-affirming version of the disease.  Wouldn’t hold it against him, either: something as physically and psychologically debilitating as polio deserves a silver lining, even if only on the Big Screen.

But that’s not what Lewin does.  O’Brien is intensely aware of his condition’s daily indignities – virtually paralyzed, he spends half his day under the attention of various caretakers (the film’s two most significant ones are played by Moon Bloodgood and W. Earl Brown) and the other half confined inside an iron lung – and he’s none too optimistic about his long-term prognosis.  That’s not to say that he, and the film, wallow in misery; as portrayed by the great John Hawkes (“Deadwood,” Winter’s Bone, Martha Marcy May Marlene), O’Brien maintains our sympathies without actively courting them – he’s refreshingly normal, funny and quick and a little nerdy, and more prone to irritation over his disability instead of self-pity.

But he’s also a realist, and Lewin structures the film around his very real goal: he wants to have sex before he dies.  This is more trouble than you might think, and Lewin carefully presents O’Brien’s physical form as the least of the impediments blocking his way.  O’Brien is deeply religious and still guilt-stricken over the death of his younger sister (she perished, he feels, because his parents were too preoccupied caring for him), and the spiritual uncertainty he feels results in the first of The Sessions‘ most important relationships.

For about a third of the film’s runtime, Lewin makes us voyeurs to O’Brien’s conversations/confessions with his local Catholic priest Brendan (William H. Macy, in a performance as gentle and understated as his Frank Gallagher on Showtime’s “Shameless” is explosive and self-serving), never casting their dialogue in clear moral terms.  Devout as he may be, O’Brien has a none-too unreasonable deification of what the physical form can do (given his life-long struggle with polio), and Brendan’s sincere contemplation of O’Brien leads him to offer some suggestions outside the standard Catholic priest’s purview.

Eventually, O’Brien finds himself partnered with sexual surrogate Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Helen Hunt), and it’s here that The Sessions develops into something unexpected and wholly refreshing: a serious, mature drama about sexuality, one that’s explicit without being graphic, honest without being overwrought.  O’Brien’s relative inexperience with women leads him to first treat Cheryl like a prostitute – that’s his first mistake.  Cheryl approaches her work like an anthropologist, studying the human body in a manner both enthusiastic and analytical; she finds O’Brien’s physical contortions and insecurities fascinating, and worthy of intense clinical focus.

This is the best performance of Hunt’s career; I’ve never seen her so open and unguarded, though I worry part of the reason the Academy honored her with an Oscar nomination was due to her frequent nudity.  Her ease about her own body stems not from lust but from physical respect.  Despite having a son and husband (Adam Arkin, underutilized), Cheryl can choose sex as a profession because it doesn’t hold the same stigmas for her as it does for O’Brien.  She wants to understand him as a person, and as he begins to see her less as a sex object, and as she begins to unravel his deepest neuroses, they start dropping all affectations.  The majority of The Sessions centers on their talks, and it’s a pleasure to watch them – we get so few opportunities to see movies where adults try to connect with one another.

In a way, Lewin uses the sex as the decoy, a way to trick the audience into watching a movie about emotional intimacy.  One of my favorite television tropes is the “bottle” episode – you restrict characters to just a few settings so that they focus on each other instead of on their surroundings – and The Sessions uses the confinement of various bedrooms and hotel suites to similar ends.  As O’Brien exceeds his own conception of his physical limitations, the already-worldly Cheryl learns something she never knew about human nature: its plasticity, its capacity for growth.

A lesser film would engineer a phony romance between the two, but The Sessions isn’t interested in melodrama.  O’Brien and Cheryl negotiate the arrangements of their sessions with patience and tact, and when they sense their feelings deepening for one another, they don’t behave like genre cutouts (almost.  The Sessions only stumbles, somewhat, in the pre-fab scenes where Arkin and Hunt squabble over her bond to O’Brien).  I shudder at what could have been; Lewin dodges conventionality with an atypical coda that lets O’Brien redefine himself in the wake of Cheryl’s attention, and what this ending loses in visceral satisfaction, it gains in genuine, honest sentiment.  It isn’t just that Ben Lewin takes disability seriously.  It’s that he takes life seriously, in all its confusions and minor victories, and that clear-eyed insight gives The Sessions power.

Fox’s Blu-ray/Digital Copy combo pack looks pretty solid – The Sessions was an ultra-low budget venture, so the picture quality has some limitations, but it’s nothing catastrophic or distracting.  Ditto to the disc’s clean, unobtrusive 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track.

Bonus features are, unfortunately, a little thin.  We get two rightfully excised deleted scenes; the trailer; and five decent but slight EPK featurettes: “Writer/Director Ben Lewin Finds Inspiration,” “John Hawkes Becomes Mark O’Brien,” “Helen Hunt as the Sex Surrogate,” “A Session with the Cast,” and “The Women Who Loved Mark O’Brien.”

Still, that complaint is small potatoes.  This is a smart and complex look at love and sex, filtered through the limitations – and triumphs – of the human experience.

The Sessions is now available on Blu-ray.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.