Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Love: The Sessions

Here's what happens in The Sessions: John Hawkes says clever things from an uncomfortable position, Helen Hunt gets naked.  Not just once, not like 'kind of naked', no, Helen Hunt gets naked, and if you remember when Helen Hunt was just on Mad About You, then you will feel awkward about this.  If you are me, you will want to insist that Helen Hunt please take her privacy and you will make that face that says 'what are you doing? stop that!' and you will remember Paul Reiser is a person who exists.  Then you'll think about how both of the stars of that show just were not people you'd ever even realized had human bodies before, and then Helen Hunt will speak very clinically about having a human body in a way that makes you feel like she's shaming you because you're an immature jerk who just giggld about Helen Hunt being naked.  This is sort of a source of comedy in The Sessions, and sort of supposed to be heartwarming because, of course, Helen Hunt's character Cheryl is in the nude for a very specific purpose: she's a sex surrogate.  It's her job to serve as a hands on therapist and instructor for Mark (Hawkes), a 38-year old virgin who has spent most of his life in an iron lung.
The film is based on the true-life experiences of Mark O'Brien, and follows the account he wrote about in an magazine essay entitled "On Seeing a Sex Surrogate."  If you read the piece (and you can, here), the film adaptation serves as an often to-the-letter illustration of Mark's struggles and triumphs.  For all his time in the iron lung, he's an accomplished individual, a well-educated poet with a keen sense of humor and a quick-witted way with words. We spend time with him in the 1980's where, upon being hired to write an article in which he interviewed other disabled people about their sex lives, he falls for his lovely young assistant and begins to contemplate the 'what ifs' of his own wholly absent sex life.  She's not into him, but that's ok.  Mark begins casual, conversational confessions with a relatively easy going priest (William H. Macy), and with Catholic approval, Mark signs on to see Cheryl for a max of six sessions.  It's a different kind of rehabilitation, one that will allow Mark to feel as though he's in contact with his own physicality in some way while also giving him a sense of personal pride.  Cheryl is not a prostitute, of course, she's a caring, very gentle medical professional, and while their sessions are equipped with several awkward moments, the film succeeds in making the viewer really like Mark.  We want him to succeed.  We want him to get laid.      
Of course, the film is essentially a quiet comedy, and the outcome is relatively predictable.  The Sessions has been buzzed about for months as a dizzying, happy-making triumph - a film you can really feel good about without an Oscar-season backlash.  I wouldn't go that far, but yes, as the theaters begin to slowly curate a collection of movies about misery, The Sessions is innocuous fare boasting an impressively warm and charming performance from the occasionally terrifying Hawkes.  He has a face capable of alarming transformation, and here the cult leaders and criminals fade away in favor of something heartbreakingly sincere. He's a different character than what we've seen before, and Hunt is too.  This feels like a comeback role for her, a naked declaration of her own relevance after a decade of slipping under the radar.  Yet, for all the hopeful, triumphant niceties and sparkling little performances, I didn't feel much in the wake of The Sessions. It seemed like I was supposed to, like something should have resonated, but nothing did.  Just as I didn't know how to react to the surprise (yes, I know, I really just didn't think it was possible) of having to see Helen Hunt naked, I frequently wasn't sure whether I was supposed to laugh or let my heart quietly bleed.

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