Alternate, Link-Bait Headline: TOTALLY NAKED HELEN HUNT BANGS POLIO VICTIM FOR MONEY!
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.”
We’re introduced to Mark’s refreshingly cruel sense of humor through Joan, who he can’t stand – despite the fact that she’s clearly a good person who bathes him and cares for him – for the simple crime of being kinda bitchy and obnoxious. He fires her and hires hot college babe Amanda (Annika Marks) – remember, this is seventies Berkeley – who he instantly falls in love with. He eventually pours his heart out to her and she bolts.
“Welcome to the human race, every day somebody breaks somebody’s heart,” Mark’s friend the priest tells him.
So begins Mark’s quest to get some stank on his hang down, which still works, despite his other disabilities. He hears about sex therapists, who will not only bone him, but guide him through the process. Again, Berkeley, the seventies.
Mark first runs the plan by his closest confidant, his priest, played by William H. Macy, basically asking a clergyman for permission to fornicate.
“My penis speaks to me, Father Brendan,” he says.
“In my heart, I believe God will give you a free pass on this one,” Macy tells him.
The sequence speaks to the best thing about The Sessions: no contrived antagonist. Almost every crappy movie about a disabled guy you’ve ever seen has some character that treats the protagonist like shit so we’ll feel sorry for him. It goes further than noble-cripple movies, too, pretty much every Tyler Perry or Nicholas Sparks movie has at least five characters who are cartoons of terrible people, just to make it expressly clear who we’re supposed to root for. Protagonist in love with a married woman? Obviously her husband beats her. Thank God, wouldn’t want the audience to feel conflicted! You see it even in based-on-a-true-story movies, which is downright cruel when you think about it. “Oh yeah, pretty much everything’s true except for the part where we turned this one guy, who’s a real person that exists in the world, into a total bastard. We thought it would add ‘drama.'”
The Sessions is refreshing because it’s just a nice movie about a nice guy with nice friends, that doesn’t have to turn anyone into a shithead to make them interesting. Truth is, mother nature is already a fine antagonist. Mark’s central goal is to get laid, and his relationship with Father Brendan works on so many levels – Brendan trying to encourage his friend without betraying his church, all while trying to vicariously experience the thrill of sex through his disabled buddy, his vow-of-celibacy loophole. Mark’s gurney doesn’t fit in a confession booth either, so they have these conversations in the middle of the church, without much privacy – another nice touch. Privacy is a perk of affluence and the modern age and it’s rarely afforded the disabled.
Likewise Helen Hunt’s character doesn’t get the predictable pop-psychology treatment, where we pick and prod at the scabs of her youth to understand why she bangs polio victims for money, as if life is ever that reductive. She’s a nice, fairly normal-seeming lady, with kids and a husband and a mortgage, who does what she does because… writer/director Ben Lewin is wise enough to leave room for a little ambiguity there. Helen Hunt has a unique combination of wizened worldliness, motherliness, and soft sex appeal that works perfectly in this role.
“I had an incredible boner,” Mark writes of their first encounter.
The film was originally title The Surrogate before it became The Sessions, a reference to the six sexual sessions Mark is limited to with Helen Hunt’s character, to keep the clients from getting attached. I wish the narrative had hewed a little closer to the new title, because the only place where it falls into genre tropes is in the very end, once the sessions are over. But “the sessions” is precisely what it’s about, a beautiful vignette of time and place and people.
Ending aside, The Sessions proves you can still entertain with a movie about nice, pleasant people. Try not to read too much into the fact that it was a period piece.
The Sessions is already playing in New York in LA, and opens today in a handful of new markets, including San Francisco (hence me being embargoed until today).