Review: The Sessions, A Sweet Movie about Sweet People


I saw The Sessions at a press screening about a month before it was set to hit theaters, going in mostly cold, without having seen the trailer or read almost anything about it. All I’d heard was:

1. Helen Hunt goes full frontal in it

2. It stars John Hawkes, aka Teardrop from Winter’s Bone

Suffice it to say, that was all it took for me to give a limited-release, arthouse flick from a director I’d never heard of a shot. As the movie began, I learned, from the opening sequence, that Hawkes, looking like he’s been subsisting on nothing but smuggled Winter’s Bone meth for the last six months, narrates the film as Mark O’Brien, a 37-year-old with a twisted spine (ACTING!) whose body has been paralyzed from the neck down by childhood polio. He lives in an iron lung most of the day, and, before they took it away, traveled from place to place on a motorized gurney that he powered by blowing into a tube. He could stay outside just long enough to attend classes at UC Berkeley, studying poetry.

I almost left right then. The only way to make a life-affirming story of a saintly disabled man’s perseverance against all odds more obnoxious and awards-baity is to throw in poetry. And for some reason, no one ever seems to recognize that abled-bodied actors portraying the nobly disabled can be demeaning in the same way that a white guy with feathers in his hair playing a noble savage would be. People recognize that blackface is bad, because blackface is easy to recognize, but even supposedly-erudite cultural critics are still pretty inept when it comes to recognizing the impulse behind blackface, and why that’s bad, which is much more important.

Counter to my initial impulse, I did not leave, and I was rewarded for it, and not just because of the nudity. The Sessions departs from the usual a-spastic’s-life-is-beautiful narrative in a variety of ways, all of them pleasing. For one thing, we don’t start at the traditional beginning of this story, where our hero fights his way into college and sets the world on fire with his incendiary words. This is more a Royal Tenenbaums-style premise, in which we meet our protagonist after he’s already been the flavor-of-the-month fodder for human interest stories, yesterday’s news, but still hanging around. They’ve even taken away his motorized gurney (he couldn’t see where he was going) and stuck him with a surly assistant named Joan, who Mark says is “one crazy bitch.”