Mini-Review: The Sessions
A more cynical filmgoer would cringe at the idea of an indie film about a man paralyzed from the waist down. It seems like an excuse for melodrama, awards-season posturing, and A Very Important Message. However, Ben Lewin pulls off something miraculous in The Sessions: they take a tension-filled scenario and find the humor in it instead of wringing every tear from it. The result is light but full of heart and laugh-out-loud funny from beginning to end. Although perhaps it lacks the heft to stick in one’s mind long after you leave the theater, I was filled with respect for the filmmaker’s decision to go the comedic route: it bucks convention and feels thoroughly human. This story follows the aforementioned paralyzed man (John Hawkes) and his quest to explore his sexuality with a surrogate (Helen Hunt). As he confides in his priest (William H. Macy) and his assistant (Moon Bloodgood), we see that despite his ailment, he approaches life with wit and soul. Not coincidentally, the script provides the film with plenty of both.
While the supporting characters mostly provide bodies for Hawkes to bounce his feelings off of, they make the most of their scenes, and Bloodgood in particular has some strong moments with a receptionist in a hotel lobby. Hawkes has achieved something phenomenally tricky here: he makes you both acutely aware of the amount of work the actor must be doing to pull off a role like this, while never distracting you from the story or the character arc. He’s as understated as a performance about a sexually charged paralyzed poet could possibly get– and this is a good thing. There are no scenes with great gnashing of teeth, and it makes his struggle seem all the braver. The bravest performance in the film though comes from Helen Hunt, not just due to the frequent nudity, but because her character has to speak with such maturity despite dealing with real emotional baggage on the homefront. The facade she puts on during her sessions is beautifully acted… it may well be her best film performance to date. Their chemistry is palpable, their romance pure, and her timing from her comedic background works well next to Hawkes’ frequent one-liners. Although I praise the film’s approach to the subject matter, it may have benefitted from further struggle to achieve further depth: the movie’s simplistic approach keeps its ambitions relatively low. Still, it’s a well-acted indie, a witty and charming crowd pleaser.