Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Truncated Runtime Hurts 'The Sessions'

One of the best aspects of The Sessions, is the frank approach it takes
to the sex scenes between Helen Hunt and John Hawkes.
Oddly enough, the best compliment and biggest criticism I have for The Sessions are one in the same – it left me wanting more.

The film is based on the true-life sexual awakening of Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes),* a freelance writer and poet unable to move any muscles below his neck and forced to spend most of his days in an iron lung due to contracting Polio at a young age. At 38-years old, Mark realizes he is approaching his sell-by date and so, after getting the blessing of his open-minded priest Father Brendan (William H. Macy), he hires a sex surrogate named Cheryl (Helen Hunt) to help him achieve sexual penetration.

*I had never heard of O’Brien until this movie, but he was the focus of an Oscar Winning documentary (Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien). Furthermore, The Sessions is an adaptation of an article he wrote entitled ‘On Seeing a Sex Surrogate,’ a quick read that fills in many of the particulars on sex surrogacy. For those who are interested, the documentary can be found here, and the article is posted here.
In their first meeting, Cheryl clearly establishes parameters of what is and isn’t going to happen. Mark is paying her to have sex, but she is not a prostitute. That means she doesn’t need the money up front or in cash, and she’s not interested in his return business. To avoid intimacy, she refuses to share personal information and adheres to a six session limit. However, things don’t go as planned, and eventually a connection is forged.

This is the material of a great story, but unfortunately the movie doesn’t fully deliver. The big problem is the abbreviated run-time. Even with credits, the film runs a scant 91 minutes, and, as a result, the conclusion is abrupt, many subplots are left hanging, and a multitude of interesting corners are left unexplored.

Outside of Mark’s personal journey, nearly everything seems rushed and unfinished. It’s a shame really, because every actor in this thing seems plugged in, even peripheral ones like Adam Arkin (as Cheryl’s husband) and Moon Bloodgood (as Mark’s aid).
Obviously that’s a positive, but it also raises the bar, which, given the ultimate scope of the piece, is not a good thing.

Take the Bloodgood character for instance. She’s given two or three scenes with an employee at the hotel where Mark and Cheryl conduct their sessions. They have chemistry, he seems interested, she seems to be playing hard to get, but then it goes nowhere, and you’re left wondering, “What was the point of this subplot?”

William H. Macy is good as an interactive plot device.

And then there’s Father Brendan. Macy brings a great deal of warmth to the part, and he gets one of the best lines in the movie (“I know in my heart that God will give you a free pass on this one”). However, beyond the scene built around that line, we don’t get much in the way of his moral conflict. He’s just a buddy Mark tells all his lewd behavior too – or, more cynically, a plot device that allows the film to eschew voice over narration. The idea that Mark plans to write about the issue does not seem to faze Father Brendan, even though it would surely raise eyebrows among his higher-ups and congregation.

But Cheryl’s development poses the biggest issue. We get hints of maternal issues (her son calls her Cheryl) and marital problems (her husband wants her to convert to Judaism) that just go nowhere, and we’re asked to believe that a woman who has sex for a living and has gone through this process many times, would fall for this guy. He writes a poem sure, but is that all it takes? More scenes would’ve been helpful to contextualize everything, particularly one showing her with another patient.**

**In an interview with the Huffington Post, Cheryl Cohen Green, Mark’s real life surrogate, indicated they did not fall in love as the film suggests. For the record, Mark’s article never implied they did. Given the lack of tangible development, this isn’t exactly surprising. Having said that, I do believe it was a good idea to alter the story for the movie; I just don’t think proper consideration was given to developing it. Also, it’s worth noting that, according to an article on AOL Jobs, Cheryl actually met her husband via sex surrogacy (an element that may have helped add some context to her half of the story).
I understand my assessment is coming across rather negatively, but the truth is this is a quality film with a refreshing, matter-of-fact depiction of sex and two dynamite lead performances. Hawkes conveys a complex combination of humorous wit, anxiety and emotional turmoil with only his face and an expressively high-pitched voice at his disposal, while Hunt delivers a confident portrayal fully deserving of the Oscar nomination that came with it.

Those positives amount to enough for a recommendation, but not enough for the film to live up to its potential. The story probably could’ve benefited from a more stylistic approach, but writer-director Ben Lewin (a Polio survivor who hadn’t received a film credit in nearly a decade before taking on The Sessions) directs with all the punch of  a TV movie.

Ultimately though, the film’s biggest issue is its brevity. Given more room to breathe and develop, The Sessions could’ve been something quite special. As is, it’s a nice character piece with a life-affirming message.