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Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Sessions (Limited Release Date: 11-16-2012)

        One doesn't exactly have to be an anthropologist to tell you that Americans are more than a little squeamish when it comes to sex. This phobia of sorts manifests itself in many facets of society, film being one of several pronounced examples. Somebody being shot to death in front of loved ones (with no blood shown)? Slap a PG on that flick! (Maybe PG-13... maybe). So much as talk about an act that the average human will take part in on countless occasions, and only the very most mature may view your product. Addressing the wrong-headedness of this ideology is far less interesting than observing its effect: American films, year after year after year, are far more adapt at observing and dissecting both the event and the meaning of violence, but are hopelessly outmatched when it comes to elaborating on that most basic of human experiences. Perhaps this fundamental tenant is what takes The Sessions from good to the cusp of greatness. Not only is the film in question populated with great craft from top-to-bottom; it discusses a dicey subject with enough warmth and charm to show why it shouldn't be quite so risque in the first place.

        Writer/Director Ben Lewins' first feature film in nearly 20 years tells the story of poet Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes). A 36-year-old often confined to an iron lung, the O'Brien of the film describes his state of pseudo-paralysis by simply claiming, 'my muscles don't work too good.' This self-affacing wit is one of many reasons why people are drawn to the writer, though his bodily ailments have denied him admittance to mankind's most intimate physical expression. After receiving a go-ahead of sorts from his priest-and-confidant Father Brendan (William H. Macy), Mark contacts Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt), a sexual surrogate tasked with both deflowering and teaching the incapacitated charmer the ways of love-making.

         There's an easy-going appeal to nearly every moment of The Sessions, an accomplishment that owes thanks to many contributors. Lewin, brushing off the cobwebs to return to the director's chair, displays a breezy grace in how he chooses to unfurl his film. Without his acute awareness of when to go for the gut, and when to pull back a bit, this could have easily been a Hallmark Channel original. The project's class is bolstered by Geoffrey Simpson's subtle and lovely work behind the camera, as well as Marco Beltrami's marvelous score, minute in size, but resplendent in emotional impact. Then there are Hawkes and Hunt, both so brave, inviting, and human at every turn, each registering the numerous emotions that complicated real-life situations often present, and directors often lack the confidence to capture and display. The Sessions is not a perfect movie: it's use of religion feels forced, and there are occasional moments when the sensationalism of the story begins to overwhelm. But The Sessions is still a treasured rarity: a American movie willing and able to delve into human sexuality with courage, humor, and empathy. It may be a bit raw for some, and perhaps a touch slow-moving for others. I think it's just about perfect.

Grade: A- 

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