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

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2010 Glennies, Part 2: Best Supporting Actor

#5: Jonah Hill – Cyrus, Cyrus

In this film from Jay and Mark DuPlass, most of the film’s dialogue was improvised by the actors, and I can only imagine what kind of direction the brothers gave to Jonah Hill as the title character. Creepier… Wider eyes… Like you’re boring into my soul with a searing fireplace poker… This film presents an utterly bizarre, almost marriage-like relationship between Cyrus and his mother (Marisa Tomei), and an instant antagonism for her budding romantic interest, played surprisingly straight by John C. Reilly. All three actors boast a fantastic chemistry, but it’s Jonah Hill’s performance that is easily the most memorable and comedically disturbing.

#4: Armie Hammer – Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, The Social Network

I don’t generally give credit to an actor simply because of the likely-difficult circumstances of production (I’m sure Sam Worthington’s Avatar shoot was no picnic), but Armie Hammer managed to navigate the movie-magic vagaries of playing composited crew-rowing twins while simultaneously imbuing each of them with a distinct and memorable personality. The level of sympathy for these characters will likely depend on your feelings on the Facebook/Harvard Connection litigation (ongoing as of this writing), but Hammer’s take on the brothers Winklevi never waivers from portraying them as consummate and forthright “gentlemen of Harvard”. Even as they seem determined to bring down the ostensible antihero of the tale, they never quite seem like true villains – they are honest, self-conscious, and perhaps a little naive. Hammer manages to convey all of the dimensionality and noticeably distinct personalities amid Sorkin’s signature rapid-fire dialogue, turning in two of the most memorable performances in an equally impressive cast.

#3: Andrew Garfield – Eduardo Saverin, The Social Network

Minor spoilers for the film, and to a lesser extent, real life, will follow.
The effectiveness of The Social Network hinged on a great many things, but easily the most important aspect of the film is the erstwhile friendship of Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and Eduardo Saverin. Without Zuckerberg, there’s no Facebook. Without the relationship with Saverin, there’s no movie. Garfield and Eisenberg had a great comedic chemistry (a scene in which Saverin explains to Zuckerberg his treatment of a pet chicken is easily one of the funniest in the film), but Garfield also played the character with such earnestness and emotionality that this relationship and its inevitable dissolution were utterly captivating to behold. What happens to Saverin is business, to be sure, but the film manages to also sell it as a significant personal betrayal. While this owes a great deal to Sorkin’s writing, it is Garfield’s heartbreaking final scenes that make it succeed so masterfully.

While Garfield is receiving this award for The Social Network, I was also impressed by his turn in Mark Romanek’s Never Let Me Go. I can’t imagine what sort of Spider-Man he’ll be, but I’m a lot more interested in finding out after such a remarkable year of introductory performances.

#2: John Hawkes – Teardrop, Winter’s Bone

While Jacki Weaver may have played my favorite villain this year, it is John Hawkes who beats her out for the most terrifying screen presence. Given his unassuming and light comedic performance in 2005’s Me and You and Everyone We Know, and his thoroughly likeable run on HBO’s Deadwood, I was completely blown away by Hawkes’ transformation into the heroine’s wiry meth-addict uncle. From my original review:

His physique was more or less unchanged (except for a slightly graying beard), but his demeanor was something new and thoroughly intimidating. Every word Teardrop says seems to carry a simmering threat of violence, and although the character actually perpetrates very little, Hawkes brings a fiery intensity that makes him downright terrifying to watch.

He and Jennifer Lawrence match each other’s grit quite nicely, and their unlikely alliance was crucial to the film’s effectiveness.

#1: Christian Bale – Dicky Eklund, The Fighter

As I noted in the podcast review, Christian Bale has mostly approached his last few years’ worth of roles in a gruff and humorless fashion, and the resulting performances have not been too impressive. The moment Dicky Eklund steps into frame in the film’s opening street scene, I forgot all of that. This character is such a firecracker. As Eklund saunters down the streets of Lowell, Mass. greeting every inhabitant he comes across, Bale utterly oozes with charisma. His physical and verbal commitment to this character is unparalleled in this cast or any other film this year.

This is the self-destructive crackhead you’d love to be friends with. At the outset, he’s wiry, twitchy and completely high in every scene, but just a load of fun to be around. He plays the most dysfunctional member of a severely dysfunctional family, and yet every one of his early scenes is an absolute pleasure. Minor spoiler, revealed in the trailer: When the character detoxes in the second half of the film, Bale manages to make the personality change believable, and yet still keeps the character completely engaging even without hopping uncontrollably as he did in the first half. This is the best Bale performance in several years, and easily boasted enough screentime to rightfully be considered for Best Actor. But the Academy has spoken

Honorable Mentions:

  • Justin Timberlake as Sean Parker in The Social Network
  • Ewan McGregor as Phillip Morris in I Love You, Phillip Morris
  • Jeremy Renner as James Coughlin in The Town
  • Matt Damon as LaBoeuf in True Grit
  • Mark Ruffalo as Paul in The Kids Are All Right

Click here to see the rest of the 2010 Glennies.

Debra Granik’s “Winter’s Bone” – A masterful dose of guns, guts, and gloom

Winter’s Bone is the tale of Ree (Jennifer Lawrence), a tough-as-nails 17-year-old girl who must track down her meth-cooking, bail-jumping father in the Missouri Ozarks before he misses his court date and forfeits his bail – the family home she shares with her two younger siblings. Out of that simple, high-stakes premise comes one of the most bleak and memorable thrillers I’ve seen since Gone Baby Gone. Director Debra Granik and cinematographer Michael McDonough shoot the film with an utterly drab color palette, the Missouri gloom cloaking every frame in a desaturated blue-gray haze. The film’s atmosphere is one of utter hopelessness and yet through it all, Ree remains, frankly, a tough bitch. Relative newcomer Jennifer Lawrence (who bears quite a resemblance to Renee Zellweger) turns in a powerful and unflinching performance. As Ree interrogates one uncooperative subject after another amid social obstacles and resistance from even her own family, Lawrence delivers every line of back-country Missoura slang with remarkable authenticity.

“You’ve always scared me,” says Ree.

“That’s because you’re smart,” gruffs John Hawkes, who plays Ree’s uncle, the inexplicably-named Teardrop. Hawkes, an actor who I’d only previously seen playing wiry, semi-geeky characters, was easily the biggest surprise in this film, completely matching Lawrence’s intensity. His physique was more or less unchanged (except for a slightly graying beard), but his demeanor was something new and thoroughly intimidating. Every word Teardrop says seems to carry a simmering threat of violence, and although the character actually perpetrates very little, Hawkes brings a fiery intensity that makes him downright terrifying to watch.

Winter's Bone still

Also intimidating is Merab (Dale Dickey), one of the first characters Ree questions, who offers her tea and then advises with precipitous hostility to “Go home, child.” The stakes of this scene were driven higher by their ambiguous blood relation, and indeed, the film presents the conflicting familial and social allegiances amongst these characters as central to Missouri culture. They were also utterly unintimidated by guns or guts, which were ubiquitous throughout the film. As an ignorant, lazy, metrosexual coastal-dweller, I can’t speak to how accurate this depiction may be, but the characters and culture felt completely authentic. Also central to the film is “meth culture”, of which we’ve already seen a gritty, stylized version in AMC’s “Breaking Bad”; but while the medium of television grants that show the freedom of rich world-building over a long period, the greatest strength of Winter’s Bone is just how rich, believable, and utterly bleak a world it manages to craft within its runtime. And while the trailer-park drug production and rampant availability of methamphetamine are merely a backdrop to the overall mystery of this film, they manage to add yet another layer of bleakness and tension.

This indie thriller kept me fearing for its characters at every turn. The screenplay, adapted from a Daniel Woodrell novel by director Debra Granik and co-writer Anne Rosellini, is immensely taut with its dialogue. The characters say everything they need to say, and not a single word more. The direction and pace is fantastic, evoking shades of the Coen Brothers (it reminded me at times of both Fargo and No Country).

“You’ve paid for this in blood,” a character tells Ree toward the end. And indeed, if this film has a central theme, it is blood. How it binds or separates us, how easily it is disregarded, and what we might do to protect it. Lawrence and Hawkes’ intense performances guide the audience masterfully through this simple, effective thriller, and make it well worth the price of admission.

FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10