Director: Ben Lewin
Starring: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt
No one film can have universal appeal, so it's only natural that every once in a while there will be a film that seemingly everyone else loves but that does nothing for you. For me, that film is The Sessions, a well-meaning and well acted film that just ended up falling flat for me. While the film certainly has many excellent qualities, I didn't feel that they quite held together - or, to be more specific, that the fine first two acts were completely let down by the third.
Based on a true story, The Sessions centers on Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes), a polio stricken journalist who spends the majority of each day in an iron lung. Because of his physical limitations Mark's life is fairly isolated and though he has many friends and is loved, he has never had a romantic life. While doing a story about sex and the disabled, he's directed to Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt), a sexual surrogate, and after a heart-to-heart with his priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy), he decides to engage Cheryl's services for himself. The decision is a difficult one for Mark, who is devoutly Catholic and, in addition to the physical limitations imposed by his illness, feels an intense sense of guilt about the death of his sister when they were children, which has in turn instilled a feeling in him that he's undeserving of love. He's also nervous about the idea of being physically intimate with someone for the first time.
Despite some last minute second thoughts, Mark is persuaded to go through with his first meeting with Cheryl, who begins by explaining to him how what she does is different than prostitution, and by stating that there will be a maximum of six sessions. Although Mark and Cheryl spend much of their screen time together in bed, the sessions are as much about talking as they are about sex, about helping Mark work through the lingering traumas of his childhood. It's natural that Mark begins to develop feelings for Cheryl, but less expected is that Cheryl begins to reciprocate those feelings. Despite her attempts to maintain a professional distance, and despite the fact that she's married, something profound happens between herself and Mark, something she didn't expect but can't deny either. It's only what happens next that she can control.
Hawkes and Hunt are both excellent and each delivers a performance that transcends the archetypes their characters might otherwise be stuck in. Hawkes has an arguably "showy" part thanks to Mark's physical limitations, but he doesn't rely on the disability to make the performance. Instead he makes Mark a very warm and charming character, someone able to connect easily with those around him on intellectual and emotional levels, and struggling with the frustration of not being able to make a physical connection as well. He makes Mark a human being rather than a symbol, which is part of the reason why the film is as touching as it is. The other part is Hunt, whose performance is destined to be described as "brave" - because that word when applied to actresses is almost always synonymous with "naked" - but which runs much more than skin deep. She's much more complex than the "helper maiden" role she might otherwise be relegated to and in the end the film is as much about her own complicated feelings about her work and her life as it is about Mark's journey.
In the hands of its actors The Sessions often blossoms into something meaningful and moving, but it is ultimately let down by its unambitious screenplay and soft direction. Although it is to the film's credit that it deals with matters of sex and religion in a refreshingly direct and honest way, it ultimately doesn't take enough time to develop its many themes in a satisfactory way. The buildup of the story is handled quite well, providing us with characters we can care about and a set-up with many possibilities, but the briskness of the film's third act is its undoing. It ends on such an abrupt note that it is rather jarring, making for an ending that wants to be emotionally engaging, but just doesn't have the traction for it.
The Sessions is a film that I'll probably end up seeing again once its on DVD because the performances are so good, and perhaps on second look I'll find more to appreciate about it. As it stands at the moment, however, I feel like it falls short of doing what it aspires to do.