Helen Hunt Makes "The Sessions" Worth Taking
“The Sessions,” based on the autobiographical essay by Mark O’Brien- who was paralyzed from the neck down from polio- is about his attempt to rid himself of his virginity. Written and directed by Ben Lewin, it is a simple tale of a Herculean chore. Watching a character look for sex is not in itself interesting but when that character can only get around in a gurney, has no movement from the neck down and is an observant Catholic it becomes intriguing.
Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), a writer and poet, has a climatic accident while being washed by a female nurse. This embarrassing moment validates that his part is in working order. So along the typical thinking of most healthy men he decides he wants to experience the ultimate act of pleasure with a female. Being a practicing Catholic and unmarried, however, is the first road block. Looking for God’s blessing Mark seeks the council of his parish’s priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy). Timing is everything. Being a child of the sixties Father Brendan is willing to grapple with ideas that do not adhere to the orthodoxy. When asked by Mark if God will bless his act Father Brendan allows his humanity to over rule Church protocol. After what God did to his body, why would He deny Mark sexual pleasure? Father Brendan gives Mark God’s blessing.
Mark enlists the services of Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt) a professional sex surrogate. Unlike a prostitute who is paid for the sexual act itself, a sex surrogate explores the sensual feelings of the whole body and eases any psychological barricades that may prevent a client from enjoying sexual pleasure. Mrs. Cohen Greene is a professional who outlines the boundaries for Mark and informs him that six sessions will be the limit. The goal by the sixth visit should be full penetration and climax. During those sessions, however, Mark begins to take to Ms. Cohen Greene’s care and attention. As poets do when charmed he writes her a love poem. Mrs. Cohen Greene- a professional but not one without compassion- is touched by his affections. But she is also worried they might have crossed a line. She ends their sessions before the sixth but not before they achieve their goals.
Mr. Hawkes’ choices are limited but it’s important that Mark is likable or else the movie doesn’t work. He twists his limbs uncomfortably which is a convincing visual image of a useless body. Mark’s use of his poet’s charm helps him navigate around his disabilities. Mr. Hawkes’ facial expressions and voice fluctuations successfully supply his words with feelings and power. Mr. Hawkes has created a character who is both sweet and unpretentious with a characteristic that is attractive to both females and movie audiences alike: a sense of humor.
Mr. Macy is a top flight character actor. When he gets his hands on a character he not only brings him to life but gives him depth. He’s able to convey the conflict being waged inside Father Brendan when he hears of Mark’s moral dilemma. But we’re also never in doubt of the wisdom lurking within his geniality. Affable, light hearted and with a sense of humanity Mr. Macy doesn’t look like he’s working hard but that’s because he’s so good. Unfortunately, Mr. Lewin resorts to gimmicks to get across the fact that Father Brendan is a priest from the sixties. It would have been just enough to show Father Brendan with his hair down to his shoulders. In one scene he waits outside of Mark’s house smoking a cigarette and in another he takes a beer when offered. Both scenes felt forced. It was unnecessary since Mr. Macy’s performance told you all you need to know about Father Brendan’s character.
Ms. Hunt is brilliant. I’m not a fan of Ms. Hunt’s acting. There is something too “Helen Hunt” about it. Nothing changes from role to role whether it’s out chasing tornadoes or jostling with Jack Nicholson. As Mrs. Cohen Greene I was able to forget about “Helen Hunt.” Ms. Hunt creates a character focused on professionalism and her client’s needs. What makes this a brilliant portrayal is the evenness of the performance. When she first introduces herself to Mark she is empty of emotion; just as a doctor is during a first time check-up with a five year old. She explains the procedure and the rules and guides her patient through it. Her behavior is consistent even while nude- which is through all of the sessions. Ms. Hunt allows a little bit of emotion to break through when she finds out that Mark has written her a love poem. Ms. Hunt doesn’t let melodrama to slip into the performance. Instead it’s a case where a professional is touched by the moment but doesn’t forget her responsibilities to her profession. She is the same character when the movie ends as when we first see her. But we know there is more to her then just a dedicated professional.
Mr. Lewin does a nice job directing “The Sessions.” Just as Mr. Hawkes is boxed in while trying to bring his character to life, Mr. Lewin is limited by having to make scenes comical and worth watching while his main character is stuck on a gurney. At times he uses that to his advantage. He does a good job of extracting the emotion out of each scene and it helps that he and his actors are on the same page. He doesn’t have any artistic style as a director but his story is entertaining enough that he can just let his camera roll as it picks up what his actors do best.