Film Notes: The Sessions

By • Nov 4th, 2012
Category: Books, Movies, Music, Televison, Books and Authors, Film, Film Notes, People, YouTube Videos

Every once in a while a picture will come along that makes you sit up and prompt you to think in a very different way. That is what director Ben Lewin’s The Sessions does to you as you sit in the darkened picture hall and watch a poignant, funny, optimistic and above all a well-made story about life and love unfold in front of you. Evoking such a vast range of emotions in a span of 95 minutes is not an easy task, but Lewin succeeds brilliantly in just doing that.

John Hawkes in The Session. Photo credit - Sarah M. GolankaThe Sessions is based on the real life-story of a polio survivor with an iron lung, who has a mission to accomplish at the age of 38. What that mission is and how he reaches his goal is what The Sessions is about. Like the protagonist, director and writer Lewin is a polio survivor, but that has not come in his way of achieving his dreams in the world of cinema and television.

The Sessions is a story about 3 people: a disabled journalist and poet, a Catholic priest and a sex surrogate. This is a story of how Berkeley-based Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) wants to know a woman in the full biblical sense when he just shy of 40 years old. He confesses his desire to Father Brendan (William H.Macy), and wonders if he could help him with his journey?  An opportunity presents itself to Mark  to write an article about disabled people using sexual surrogate and that is how he ends up meeting sex therapist Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Helen Hunt).

You start to sit up straight in your chair as the opening scene unfolds on that big silver screen and along with the rolling credits you notice Hawkes lying flat in a mechanized gurney and navigating his way through the streets of  Berkeley. No one is assisting him. You then hear him speak and think it is a computerized voice, and it takes you a few minutes to realize it is Hawkes’ own voice. You also realize within the first few minutes that while polio has left him physically devastated – mentally he is sharp with a wry sense of humor and an optimist. He leads a rather routine life in a house with attendants taking care of him and for spirtual sustenance he makes trips to his neighborhood church. Spirituality plays a central role in this film.

When Hawkes is presented with an opportunity to write an article about disabled people and sexual surrogate his life takes a turn, and he decides to do some real life research on this subject. Through a therapist he finds  Cheryl Cohen-Green (Helen Hunt), a sexual  therapist, who can help him in his journey of sexual discovery.  But, before he embarks on that journey he seeks help from his church.

William H. Macy in The Sessions Photo credit: Sarah M. GolonkaHe recruits Macy to help him in his journey to be with a woman in the full biblical sense. Some of the best scenes in the film are between Hawkes and Macy, who does a brilliant job and has to listen to some fairly explicit thoughts from his parisihoner. You witness the internal struggle this celibate priest goes through before finally praying for Hawkes’ success thus  ”Sweet Jesus…please bless this small journey.” And that small journey becomes e a big voyage of discovery for both Hawkes and the viewer of the picture. For the viewer it is a voyage of discovery on how director Lewin handled the narrative with great elan and sophistication.


John Hawkes and Helen Hunt in The Sessions. Photo credit: Sarah M. GolonkaAt their first meeting Hunt outlines their rules of engagement and how they will have a total of 6 sessions after which Hawkes will be ready and confident to go out on dates and be with partners. Without giving away much, how those sessions unfold makes for an interesting watch. Through the course of their sessions we see how Hunt puts Hawkes at ease and gets him to understand what sex and intimacy are all about.  She also explains how she is different from a prostitute since she keeps notes of their sessions and the case is then reviewed by a therapist. It is in these sessions that director and writer Lewine does a brilliant job of directing Hawkes and Hunt. There is lot of nudity in the film and Hunt appears comfortable with the frontal nudity she displays in the film.

This film is about a dynamic voice in a paralysed life as Macy puts it at one point. This is about a man who knew both phyical and emotional love. He loved and was loved by many women. The fact that he was confined to a gurney and an iron lung becomes incidental in the movie. It was Hawkes humor, wit and his way with words that won people over to his side.

Special mention must be made about the other cast members, who did a great job. They include Moon Bloodgood, Annika Marks, Adam Arkin, Rhea Perlman and others.

The Sessions is currently running in various theatres in San Francisco bay area.

Rating: R (for strong sexuality, including graphic nudity and frank dialogue).
Cast: Helen Hunt, John Hawkes and William H. Macy
Director: Ben Lewin

Photo credits: Fox Searchlight and Sarah M. Golanka

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