New Release: The Sessions

Every now and then, a movie opens your mind to a different kind of life.  It makes you think about how another person must have lived their life without you ever knowing there were people who lived lives like that.  Sometimes we identify with characters because they are just like us, but sometimes you identify with a character because they are better and stronger than we know we might be in that situation.  Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes) is one such character - he has lived almost his entire life as a survivor of polio, which means he spends 20 hours a day in an iron lung to help him breathe.  He's in his thirties and despite his efforts, he's never been able to maintain a relationship (I imagine the logistics eventually get in the way), and has decided that he'd really like to lose his virginity.  But Mark was raised well by his Catholic parents who refused to put him in a home, and his upbringing forces him to ask Father Brendan (William H. Macy) for permission.  Father Brendan assures him that God will give him a pass.  Mark is also an author for the local newspaper (typing with a pencil in his mouth) and gets in touch with a few disabled people who were part of a story about sexuality, and gets in touch with Cheryl Cohen-Green (Helen Hunt), a sexual surrogate who helps people will problems (physical or emotional) related to sex.  Mark and Cheryl work together for a few sessions (thus, the title), and a stronger bond forms between them, but a lot of what Cheryl hoped to help him with, Mark does actually learn.

I saw this at TIFF in September, and this summary barely describes how much fun and how much heart this movie has.  John Hawkes is really amazing playing a man paralyzed, but hardly disabled.  He has to act with only his face, and voice and he makes you care without being a sad-sack character that just makes you feel bad.  He's really terrific.  One of  the big parts of this movie that made me nervous going in was Helen Hunt - I wasn't sure this was a role I would care about with her playing it.  But she's perfect - she's strong about her sexuality (even while completely naked), and conflicted about what happens after her sessions with Mark and returning to her real family.  She's really great making Mark think through his bigger issues.  And the supporting cast is really great - William H. Macy, as well as Mark's nurse, Rod (W. Earl Brown), and Mark's friend Carmen (Jennifer Kumiyama) who loans him a bedroom (why would someone who sleeps in an iron lung need a bed or a couch?).  Macy, in particular, is really great as Mark tell him the stories about his upbringing and how the sessions are going, we all get to hear more about Mark.  And Macy's ability to play a supportive, interested, helpful priest, without the smallest hint of negative issue is really amazing.

This is one of those movies that it's hard to describe, and is so much greater than the sum of its parts.  It's hard to explain how funny a movie like this can be.  Imagine all of the sex jokes from American Pie, but in a realistic, adult situation that also has a lot of heart.  Definitely go see it.

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