I try not to fault a movie for being predictable, especially when the events depicted are based on a true story. Many narrative films are successful by emphasizing the importance of the journey itself instead of the destination. However, in order for me to appreciate a film with a predictable ending, I have to be at least somewhat challenged along the way. Relationships should be deeply explored and psychological depths must be plumbed in order to justify the foreseen conclusion.
Right from the real-life news footage prologue of Ben Lewin’s new film The Sessions, I had a pretty good idea of the journey that our protagonist Mark O’Brien was about to undertake. O’Brien’s struggle was not unlike those that have been depicted in many films about disabled people trying to succeed in an improbable situation, or any movie about an underdog for that matter. Where The Sessions disappoints, however, is in Lewin’s complete disinterest in challenging the viewer despite many obvious opportunities to do so. Despite two wonderfully charming lead performances, The Sessions has no ambitions other than being conventional and is utterly boring as a result.
The film is inspired by the true story of journalist and poet Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) who relied on an iron lung for most of his life due to complications surrounding bronchitis. After being commissioned to write an article about sex and the disabled, Mark decides to conquer his own sexual inexperience by attempting to woo one of his attractive young caregivers. Her refusal breaks his heart, inspiring him to lose his virginity through a more emotionally-detached method: a sexual surrogate. Mark hires 40-something sex surrogate Cheryl (Helen Hunt) for six therapy sessions that will gradually guide him towards “full penetration.”
Throughout his sessions, the ever talkative Mark shares his exploits with local priest Father Brendan (William H. Macy) and anybody else who will listen. This leads to some of the most frank conversations about sex that one is likely to hear at the movies this year and also establishes a cinematic universe where “getting it on” is an unpleasant and tedious chore to everybody except for Mark. The cynical view that minor characters have towards sex is supposed to make Mark’s wide-eyed wonder look all the more wide-eyed and wondrous, but after the third person in a row complains about his/her unfulfilling bedroom life it became quite monotonous.
As usual for many first timers, Mark gets emotionally attached to Cheryl and Cheryl finds she has a deeper connection to Mark than any of her past clients (of course!) and it gets hard (sorry) to keep the relationship strictly professional. Predictable this may be, but the performances by Hawkes and Hunt prevent this relationship from descending into sappy cliché territory. Hawkes portrays an infectious nervous energy that will instantly endear him to anyone who had their own awkward first sexual encounters. Hunt’s deep voice and maternal quality works brilliantly to establish the teacher-student connection between Cheryl and Mark. At first she is slightly patronizing, but gradually she and Mark become equal partners in their sexual conquest. The evolution of that relationship is by far the most interesting part of the film. Cut out the first 20 minutes, the last 20 minutes, and all of the supporting characters and The Sessions could be a good movie. Put it on stage instead and it could be a great play.
The reason this movie would work better as a play is because Lewin and his cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson (Shine) don’t seem at all interested in using shot composition to tell this story. Each character is primarily framed in a mid-shot with close-ups used sparingly. Lost is the golden opportunity to emphasize the awkward intimacy of each encounter by getting extremely close to the characters’ faces. There is also no attempt to portray the world from the perspective of its protagonist, which runs counter to the internal monologue that Mark frequently delivers and the detailed glimpse the audience is given to Mark’s thoughts. Lewin and Simpson did not need to take the extreme approach that worked so well for Julian Schnabel and Janusz Kaminski in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, but one would think that the camera might be tilted once in a while to give the audience the perspective of a protagonist who spends his entire life laid out horizontally.
The missed opportunities extend to the character interactions. William H. Macy is utterly wasted as the priest who Mark consults for advice and to whom he confesses his sins. What a magnificent chance to explore the sexual dynamics of two men who have not committed the holiest of holies for very different reasons. Alas, Father Brendan’s lack of a sexual history is never even alluded to other than Macy doing his best surprised face when Mark describes something particularly graphic.
Perhaps it is unfair to critique a movie based on what it could have been, but the fact is The Sessions was so boring that all I could do was sit back and hope that the plot would steer away from the painfully obvious narrative direction. It does not.
Bottom Line: The Sessions is a predictable plot exercise that misses too many opportunities.