Friday, November 16, 2012


For a movie based on a true story about a severely disabled man who decides it’s time he finally experienced sex, The Sessions feels awfully safe. That it doesn’t become smutty or distasteful is a credit to the warmth and humor that writer-director Ben Lewin brings out of the film’s lead performances. John Hawkes plays the disabled man, a poet who spends most of his time in an iron lung. During the few hours a day in which he’s not contained in this life-sustaining device, his assistant (Moon Bloodgood) wheels him about on a stretcher. Feeling he’s nearing his “expiration date,” and after consulting with a compassionate priest (William H. Macy), he decides that he’d like to understand what real intimacy is all about. He gets in contact with a sex therapist (Helen Hunt) who schedules six sessions of body awareness exercises. It’s an edgy concept softened and diluted by sleepy, soft-focus sentimentality until it’s about nothing more than better living and better relationships through better physical awareness.

But rather than growing sanctimonious, the film remains low-key and character-driven, playing out in simple scenes, developing the relationship between the man and his therapist. Rare is the sequence that holds more than two characters at a time. Thin and short, the film proceeds with a dash of charm and gets by on an unexpected matter-of-fact, all-smiles approach that preemptively deflates the base, exploitative approach that one can imagine a lesser production might have, even inadvertently, fallen into. Lewin builds a story that’s out to do nothing more than assert the basic humanity of all persons no matter what their conditions or occupations and to do so with some fine acting and surprising lightness.

That’s nice, I suppose, and the total visual indifference – flat staging and inexpressive framing – doesn’t interfere with those aims all that much. Lewin’s seemingly apathetic direction and plain visual sense is hardly enough to kill the film outright, no matter how treacly and plodding the whole thing becomes at times. Periodic scenes of Hawkes bonding with Macy’s remarkably patient and accommodating priest underline the breezy seriousness of the whole thing. It’s a glossy, decently put together film that, if it weren’t for its R-rated giggliness, could’ve passed for a mildly daring TV Movie of the Week in the 90s.

It’s all about the acting here. Hawkes, working wonders with an effortful pinched, nasally voice, has a limited physical range in the role, placed flat on his back, forcing him to wrench his neck around to speak to other characters in the scene. He’s convincing. You’d never know he wasn’t bedridden if he hadn’t been a stellar character actor for a couple decades now. He plays the role as a full, convincing person with a rich interior life, where there had to have been the unfortunate temptation of using restricted movements and vocal acrobatics as an Oscar-gambit gimmick. He projects the countenance and tenor of a man for whom it takes a great deal of work to speak, let alone write, and yet in his poetry and in his narration, he has a grace of expression that’s rather touching.

Hunt has a trickier role. The film simply asks more of her, a nakedness of expression and presentation that Hawkes isn’t called to provide in anything close to the same quantity. She carries with her the entire balance of the film’s matter-of-fact method. In her acting duets of therapeutic intimacy and slowly expanding openness with Hawkes, he projects nervous anxiety. She’s all earthy, natural comfort, ready and willing to do what it takes to help this man feel some release, even for one brief moment. That the two develop a friendship that deeply affects both of them is hardly in doubt. That there will be medical challenges and a dénouement of weepy uplift is another given. But somehow Hunt and Hawkes, in the movie’s best moments, distract from those inevitabilities.

It’s a simple movie about how we should be kind and understanding to one another that’s carried only by the hard work of the cast. The totality of its worth rests with them. This is a movie that’s content to be a thin true story softly told, visually shoddy and narratively predictable. As such, this is a film that has little to recommend it beyond the chance to see two good actors do very good work in a mediocre movie.

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