Andrew Moraitis and Bec Butterworth both saw The Sessions at the Melbourne International Film Festival, and had this to report about the Sundance-winning tearjerker from Australian filmmaker Ben Lewin.
Bec Butterworth: The Melbourne International Film Festival may kick off with the all-Australian feel good flick The Sapphires, but the Aussie talent is lurking everywhere. Australian director Ben Lewin’s The Sessions, starring Helen Hunt and John Hawkes is one feature that has major award written all over it.
When 38 year old journalist Mark O’Brien (Hawkes) is asked to write an article about disability and sex, he doesn’t feel up to it. He fills the criteria in some respects – diagnosed with Polio at age six, and almost completely paralysed, Mark has relied on an iron lung to keep him alive for most of his life – but Mark has never been kissed, let alone had a relationship. Feeling like his ‘use-by-date’ is almost up, Mark decides it’s time to face his fears. It’s time to go all the way.
When Mark’s psychologist introduces the idea of a sex therapist, Mark meets Cheryl (Hunt), a completely uninhibited woman with a family, strict professional boundaries and a unique attitude toward sex. While Cheryl’s intention is to spend six sessions guiding Mark through the ups and downs of sexual love, both will be caught unawares by the inescapable interwovenness of sex and love.
Filmmaker Lewin believes that his main role was to step back and let the casting speak for itself – undoubtedly a smart move. Hawkes’s ability to portray the emotional highs and lows of a profoundly inexperienced and inhibited O’Brien seems to go beyond mere acting; he captures the disarming wit behind a severely repressed man without falling into the cliché. Lewin (who has Polio himself) says that this was a must for the film, insisting that O’Brien is not a character to be pitied.
“Part of my agenda, as a disabled person myself, is to stand up for the rights of disabled people to be arseholes. John understood that. We were not going to portray him as a saint.” Lewin also praised Helen Hunt’s ability to ride the layers of emotion between detached and engaged required to play Cheryl. Even when Hunt is called upon to appear completely naked, the story never comes close to gratuitous, rather, supporting the film’s contention that sex is normal. Hunt and Hawkes have overwhelming chemistry – indeed, these are two of the best, and most unique, performances for either actor in a long time.
The Sessions may not be to everyone’s tastes – indeed, it takes sex education to a new level, and takes a few liberties with the opinions of the Catholic church that may be questionable. But it is at heart a relationship film, and a good one at that, and is definitely a film to see.
Andrew Moraitis: Sometimes good intentions cannot mask inadequate execution. It’s obvious that Australian/Polish bred filmmaker Ben Lewin has a strong affinity for Mark O’Brien – a Polio-inflicted poet who was mostly confined to an iron lung – but The Sessions struggles to surpass the script’s dramatic limitations. The film (formerly known as The Surrogate) is not quite the little film that could.
O’Brien (Oscar nominee John Hawkes) would like to lose his virginity. Conferring with an encouraging priest (William H. Macy), O’Brien hires sexual surrogate Cheryl (Helen Hunt), leading to an unexpectedly deep emotional bond between the two.
O’Brien has a unique voice – a self-deprecating wit attempting to cover his deeper emotional struggles – and it is a credit to Hawkes’ performance that these conflicts are emotionally present. The Winter’s Bone actor gives a dextrously internalised performance, inhabiting the poet’s despair with a skill apparent in extended close ups.
The other characters are not so interesting. Lewin sets up – but doesn’t deliver upon – possible conflicts to such a degree that it is maddening. William H. Macy almost convinces as a priest so lifeless that he immediately discards the conflict of his less-than-pious advice. Their exchanges are pure exposition, giving Mark the chance to flat-out state his wants without even the pretext of subtext. At points, it’s difficult to understand why Mark isn’t simply expressing his thoughts in voiceover, as the priest is so passive. An okay Helen Hunt, meanwhile, is undermined by a script that requires her to repeatedly dictate exposition about Mark’s emotional needs to a recorder, whilst W. Earl Brown and Moon Bloodgood’s carers are superficially defined.
Lewin’s staid direction struggles to represent O’Brien’s turmoil. The filmmaking is all close ups of characters in rooms, which might be forgivable if the script wasn’t so lacking in interpersonal tension.