Ben Lewin’s “The Sessions” – A frank foray into human sexuality

Poster for "The Sessions"

Following a bout of childhood polio, Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) lived his life alternating between a gurney and an iron lung. Minus a brief and terrifying stint on a motorized, mirror-laden contraption, he depended on others at all times for physical movement, and yet accomplished a great deal. He earned an English degree from UC Berkeley and became a journalist, activist, and poet. And through this poetry came the rather obvious truth that even someone with such a severe disability can still live a rich emotional and intellectual life. Such is the inspiring, eloquent, and entirely likable personage that we meet at the outset of The Sessions. Which makes it ever more interesting that this film glosses over all of the above in the first five minutes and focuses instead on O’Brien’s thirtysomething quest to lose his virginity with the assistance of a sexual surrogate named Cheryl (Helen Hunt).

The real-life O’Brien (who passed away in 1999) once admonished others not to call him courageous. “Saying a disabled person is courageous,” he declared, “is like saying that a black person has natural rhythm.” This film’s treatment of O’Brien’s life and pursuit of sexuality seems to take this lesson to heart. He exhibits courage, to be sure, but also embarrassment, shame, uncertainty, and terror, often mingled with wildly varying degrees of ecstasy. The film offers an incredibly true-to-life and universal exploration of one’s initial foray into sexuality, awkwardness and all. It uses O’Brien’s disability as a lens for his particular perspective rather than a facile and patronizing metaphor for the human condition, like so many lesser films on the subject.

Hawkes’ take on the character is simply marvelous, contrasting physical vulnerability with brazen and shameless honesty. There’s definitely more telling than showing with Hawkes’ character – with a screenplay based on O’Brien’s 1990 article, the film relies heavily on voiceover. And existing in a world of MPAA ratings, it also relies on O’Brien graphically recounting his unseen sessions with Cheryl after the fact, by way of conversations with the probably-fictitious Father Brendan (William H. Macy). Despite infusing O’Brien with a convincing measure of spirituality, the film doesn’t seem particularly interested in taking an in-depth look at the complex relationship between religion and sexuality. A late scene between Cheryl and a synagogue official had far more resonance in its discussion of the nervousness of young [naked] Jewish brides-to-be than any of the scenes between O’Brien and his priest. Hawkes and Macy make believable on-screen friends, but the Father’s religious cognitive dissonance really only played out on Macy’s face and never in the script itself. As amusing as it is to hear a priest suggest that Jesus Christ will give O’Brien “a free pass” for his plan, it all feels just a bit too tongue-in-cheek and cartoonish.

At various other points in the film, we see O’Brien recounting his sessions with his understandably curious friends and caregivers (including a nice turn by Moon Bloodgood), all of whom can identify on some level with what he is doing. Each of the scenes with Father Brendan could have been replaced by an equally frank conversation with just about any of his other acquaintances (or perhaps even Macy himself in another guise) and taken very little out of the film.

Still from "The Sessions"

Despite this significant structural problem, the film has a great number of impressive scenes between Hawkes and Hunt during the titular sessions. Cheryl, a married soccer mom in her private life, is quite a believable character. She has the air of an experienced practitioner, but has clearly never worked with such a severely disabled client. She gets visibly flustered as she starts to realize the full extent of O’Brien’s needs (after accidentally bending his fingers the wrong way!). And yet, her dictated notes reveal just how consummately professional she is, discussing O’Brien’s progress and feelings in practical and psychological terms even as her human compassion remains a factor. Her marriage is also fascinating, with a husband (Adam Arkin) who isn’t threatened by his wife having sex with her clients, but gets quite chafed when one of them mails her a heartfelt poem. Hunt’s brilliantly multifaceted performance as well as her evolving interactions with Hawkes quite effectively demonstrate all the negotiations and compromises that enter the mix with sex and emotion. By the time the two are able to converse comfortably despite being two naked near-strangers in bed, it becomes clear just how adaptable human interaction can be.

In fact, the film’s examination of sexual surrogacy offers a curious counterpoint to the debate over the legal status of prostitution. Legally speaking, Cheryl is definitely in the world’s oldest profession, and yet the film goes out of the way to point out the myriad differences between herself and a conventional lady of the evening. She isn’t interested in repeat business- in fact, a self-imposed guideline prohibits it beyond a specific number of sessions. All she is interested in is helping her clients discover their preferences, limitations, and capabilities, using her own body to guide the position, performance, and sensation of the client’s body. In this sense, she fits into a role none-too-dissimilar from a physical or speech therapist. While most people can work out these personal factors with a romantic partner (whether or not they ever try to), it does seem a bit naive to assume that everyone is capable of doing so. On the other hand, we’re certainly seeing the best possible version of sexual surrogacy in this film, and the profession as a whole seems rife for potential abuse, both of its patients and practitioners.

But the fact that the film is willing to provoke these questions is certainly its greatest strength. In a world of slutshaming, date rape, sex trafficking, death penalties for homosexuality, and ecstasy laced with Viagra, it’s easy to forget that sex is not the dark, shameful, and scandalous thing that it so often seems. It is the one thing that binds us all together. We all have attitudes and morals, preferences and predilections. We all have a relationship with sex, regardless of how that relationship is expressed. And in the case of individuals like Mark O’Brien, that relationship was only limited by what his body was physically capable of expressing. The mind – and penis – were as willing as ever. This depiction, however close or divergent it might be from real life, manages to tackle a serious subject with a great deal of levity and humanity. Per his wishes, I won’t call O’Brien courageous. But The Sessions certainly tries to be.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #28 – “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2” (dir. Bill Condon)

This week on the podcast, Glenn and Daniel are joined by returning guest/fiancee Sarah, who will help weigh in on the final chapter of the glorious Twilight Saga. Will love conquer all? Will a werewolf win the capricious heart of a newborn child? Will Michael Sheen once again prove that he best understands what sort of movie he’s in? Listen below and find out! (48:07)

May contain some NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 4/10 (but we actually rather enjoyed it!), 6/10 (Sarah)

Show notes:

  • We had an issue with the audio quality in this episode – it was recorded near a computer whose fan was a bit loud. It sounded quiet when we were recording in person, but was picked up significantly due to the placement and angle of the microphone. I’ve applied several noise filters that have eliminated most of the sound, but it will still be faintly audible throughout the episode. Sorry for the issue, and enjoy the show!
  • Music for this episode is Christina Perri’s “A Thousand Years“, from the soundtrack to Breaking Dawn: Part 1 (another version appears in the soundtrack to this film).
  • Read the review in which I first became a Kristen Stewart apologist – also the first review ever on this blog! (Adventureland)
  • For my only other word on Twilight, you can also check out my review of Chris WeitzNew Moon.

Listen above, or download: The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2 (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser).

Quick double review: Julia Loktev’s “The Loneliest Planet”

Poster for "The Loneliest Planet"

Daniel and I recently saw the new film from writer/director Julie Loktev, The Loneliest Planet. The film features an engaged couple, Alex (Gael García Bernal) and Nica (Hani Furstenberg), who are backpacking through the Caucasus Mountains, when something significant and spoilery happens, that Changes Everything™. What follows are our unfiltered thoughts on the film.

The Loneliest Planet is described as a thriller, which is about the biggest bunch of crap I have ever heard. This meandering, pointless tale about two uninteresting travelers is not only grating to the audience; it’s insulting. Long, directionless shots of repetitive Georgian landscapes are coupled with minimal dialogue, next to zero context, and horrendously boring characters. The big event which “changes everything ” was actually a laugh moment. Instead of exploring what this means for the couple, we get more walking (now with body language cues!) and one of the longest most irritating scenes I can remember (featuring a campfire song). Minimalism can certainly work for you, but you need some dialogue, subtitles if other languages are present (the tour guide is difficult to understand-not that it mattered), and character development to tell a story. At the end this is a 5-10 minute short that is elongated to a maddening length. Avoid.

My esteemed colleague detested this film only slightly more than I did. I will grant that idea of a couple’s relationship quietly breaking down thanks to a single, horrendous misstep is a fascinating one. I will even grant that depicting this encroaching gulf between them with minimal dialogue, particularly in the presence of a total stranger on vacation, also seems realistic. Anyone who has been to an uncomfortably silent dinner engagement between a pair of estranged hosts can certainly testify to this. The problem with this film is that we’re given next to no information about these characters. We don’t know who they are, how long they’ve been together, why they’re on this trip, or most importantly, what they mean to each other. They might have dated for years, or met last week in El Salvador (one of the many places Nica brags about visiting) – and knowing just a bit of this information might have provided a bit more perspective for “the big event”. While there are a few scenes that give us a modicum of backstory for these characters, they tended to be overlong in all the wrong ways. An early scene of unsubtitled dialogue with some Georgian villagers goes on for nearly a full minute past the point of telling us that A, these characters don’t speak the language, and B, they’re adventurous enough to be okay with this.

And that’s really the most frequent vice this film indulges in. It uses a rich tapestry of cinematography to show the couple (and their guide) trudging across the gorgeous mountain landscape, but each of these shots lasts longer than it needs to (even after I had finished studying every detail of the frame as I would a painting), and utilizes a score that comes off as increasingly repetitive – much like the landscape itself. In the end, the film doesn’t reveal much about relationships in general, because it reveals next to nothing about the relationship at its center. There is a skeleton of a character study here (with a decent performance from Furstenberg at the heart of it), but it is wrapped up in such a meager helping of character, dialogue, or story, that the resulting work comes off as hollow, insubstantial, and utterly boring.

FilmWonk rating: 2 out of 10

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #27 – “Cloud Atlas” (dir. The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer)

Poster for "Cloud Atlas"

This week on the podcast, Glenn and Daniel explore the sprawling epic from Tom Tykwer and The Wachowskis, Cloud Atlas, based on the novel by David Mitchell. And while everything might be connected, only one of us connected with this film – tune in below to find out why! (55:03)

May contain some NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 9/10 (Glenn), 4/10 (Daniel)

Show notes:

  • The sequences in Cloud Atlas are named and directed as follows:

    • The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing (Directed by Andy and Lana Wachowski)

    • Letters from Zedelghem (Directed by Tom Tykwer)

    • Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery (Directed by Tom Tykwer)

    • The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish (Directed by Tom Tykwer)

    • An Orison of Sonmi-451 (Directed by Andy and Lana Wachowski)

    • Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After (Directed by Andy and Lana Wachowski)

  • CORRECTION: I mistakenly stated that The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer were directors of photography on this film – they were not. The film’s cinematographers were Frank Griebe (who likely worked with Tom Tykwer, based on his filmography) and John Toll.
  • Music for this episode comes from the film’s magnificent, sprawling score, written by director Tykwer, Johnny Klimek, Reinhold Heil, with assistance from Gene Pritsker and Gabriel Mournsey on various tracks.

Listen above, or download: Cloud Atlas (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser).