|85. THE SESSIONS
||[Oct. 8th, 2012|01:58 am]
dir. Ben Lewin, USA 2012.|
Conventional wisdom has long been accustomed to the cinematic obsession with physical and/or mental disabilities as a slam dunk with audiences and critics, but such character-driven narratives often touch upon universal experiences in a way that is stronger than that of most other offerings, thanks to a beautiful alchemy in the performances that shines a light on the most humanistic of worldviews. In this case, John Hawkes' take on the immensely remarkable and accomplished poet and journalist Mark O'Brien, who contracted polio at a young age, requiring the near-constant use of an iron lung and a host of caretakers for the bulk of his life, combines a charm and relatability that burnishes the material with an unassailable honesty, taking the character relationships to magnificent heights and emotional resonance.
Like his real-life subject, Hawkes is complemented with a terrifically engaging and supportive ensemble, all of whom share their own takes on love and its inseparable complexities in an earnestly presented series of frank exchanges as O'Brien takes on the challenge of exploring the sexual experience after spending over thirty years hiding from it behind walls of religious guilt, personal fears, and physical limitations. He finds a host of advocates from the various communities that he inhabits - from his church, the newly arrived and progressively empathetic Father Brendan (William H. Macy), from his profession as a writer, a number of physically disabled yet carnally uninhibited interview subjects, including Carmen (Jennifer Kumiyama), and his attendants Vera and Rod (Moon Bloodgood and W. Earl Brown). Following an mutually unexpected awakening and heartbreak with a warmly attractive assistant (Annika Marks), O’Brien finds himself re-evaluating the sensual possibilities in his life as he discovers the options and feelings that he had never considered.
His research for an article on the sex lives of the disabled leads him to sex surrogate and therapist Cheryl, portrayed with a quietly compelling blend of candor, expertise, coaching, and eroding professional detachment by Helen Hunt. This is extremely tricky narrative territory for the actors and screenwriter/director Ben Lewin, not just for the significant depictions of sexual acts so inherent to the character dynamics and arcs, but also for the danger of falling into the conventional tale of doctor and patient stumbling into a courtship of transference. What happened in real life, and expressed here, is much more complex and inspiring, showing the inevitable and staggeringly strong connection that two such driven people on a shared journey would make, without making that connection seem like the end goal, but rather a very personal and transformative experience that enriches and bonds both participants, and delicately enhances their other relationships rather than merely threatening their stability outside the pre-limited number of sessions.
It’s difficult to describe why some of these choices work so well, particularly when Cheryl’s home life is shown in a less than flattering light with her typically disrespectful teenage son (Jarrod Bailey) and her unemployed and increasingly jealous husband Josh (Adam Arkin), but the two somehow impart enough humanity in their brief scenes to never fully come off as antagonists from which Cheryl needs to extract herself, even as Josh convinces her to convert to Judaism to appease his family, despite her own negative experiences in a conservative Catholic upbringing. Their family problems are surmountable in everyday terms, even though they’d be more than enough of an excuse for divorce in a broader mainstream movie; Lewin, himself a polio survivor, and his producing partner and wife of 30 years Judi Levine, along with their daughter and associate producer Alexandra Lewin, understand that household dynamic well, and Arkin especially essays his role honestly as man who unquestionably loves his wife even as he struggles to understand and open a discussion about what’s happening to her.
Similarly, the ensemble is peppered with other romantic foils, played by James Martinez and Ming Lo, who come off as boorish but believable, at ease with the physicality and confidence that is initially alien to O’Brien. Theirs are not presented so much as alternative outlooks, but rather shades of the same spectrum available in the vast variety of sexual experiences and pursuant analysis. The way that the film gives these supporting characters just enough breathing room to flesh out the world outside of O’Brien’s insularity is one of its most effective and resonant traits, gently zeroing in on the imperfect expansiveness facing all of the characters on their own journeys.
Lewin and editor Lisa Bromwell utilize the rhythms and space of these dynamics sublimely, often placing a reaction shot at just the right moment during an extended dramatic sequence. One of the film’s most memorable moments comes from a single shot of Cheryl walking back to her car after a session, tidily packing up her things, all set to go, when Vera catches up to bring her something that she had forgotten. At once, Cheryl is hit with a reverie of emotion beyond mere sadness, longing, accomplishment, or acceptance, but one that Vera immediately understands, and so too does the audience when seeing her expression change upon witnessing Cheryl’s catharsis.
In a post-film Q&A, Hawkes and Lewin discussed how film, more than any other medium, can capture the actual reactions, nervous tension, and chemistry of two characters meeting for the first time, and there have not been many first meetings in cinema as charged as O’Brien’s first session with Cheryl, in which he feels he must meet thirty years of expectations and repression head on (like going to his own execution, as he says to Vera, and in his real-life article describing the experience). Lewin prefers to get performances built out of the trust established between the director and actors during the casting process rather than in rehearsals, and it pays off hugely here as he shot the session scenes in story order, allowing the vital chemistry between Hawkes and Hunt to develop organically before the audience’s eyes.
Composer Marco Beltrami’s cutesy pizzicato, particularly in the film’s opening newsreel montage showing O’Brien’s life as a Cal student, sometimes overemphasizes the lighthearted aspects of the approach, but it does juxtapose well with the stark introductory images of O’Brien in the iron lung, along with the first challenge that he faces in the story proper, when a cat brushes by his nose, which he has no capability of scratching. Right away, the extremity of his condition is relatable and need not be the focus of the themes to come, and in the more dramatic segments, Beltrami loses the playfulness and delivers soaring yet tempered notes that complement the emotions well without getting in the way of the performances. Depicting an impressive amount of emotional complexity all around rather than settling to make a mere inspirational based-on-a-true-story offering, the cast and crew honor their subjects and material with a light touch - like the sessions themselves, gently guiding the audience through rather heavy experiences with earnest empathy and good humor.