Big Screen Ballyhoo – “The Sessions”

As I continue to fulfill my quest to watch 50 percent of the Oscar nominated movies this year, I keep finding movies I enjoy. Which is quite nice, to be sure. Still, I’m going to have to pick up my pace to reach my goal.

My most recent viewing was “The Sessions,” nominated for Best Actress for Helen Hunt, and directed and written by Ben Lewin. I don’t know if I’ve seen a more crowd-pleasing movie nominated for an Oscar outside of “The Avengers.” While some critics may think “crowd-pleasing” means uncreative and boring, or unchallenging, I think the movie was just fantastic.

The movie, which I’m going to go ahead and say is rated R and has quite a bit of nudity and sexual content considering the subject, is based on the true story of Mark O’Brien, a writer and poet effectively paralyzed from the neck down due to polio. Unlike Disney “based on a true story” movies (with the possible exception of “Cool Runnings”), this movie has a lot of heart and goes places you didn’t necessarily expect it to, containing a powerful amount of emotion that you don’t realize until you get toward the end.

O’Brien (John Hawkes) spends most of his time in an iron lung. He can be out of the iron lung for about four hours every day, depending on how he’s feeling and how excited he gets. The movie is told in a partial first-person narrative style, based on an article O’Brien wrote called “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate.” The movie kicks off with O’Brien’s condition being shown, his care in the hands of a rather rough-looking woman. A Catholic, he goes to church and strikes up a conversation with the new priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy). After consulting with the Father, O’Brien decides to fire his current caretaker and look for someone new. He finds a new caretaker in Amanda (Annika Marks). Unfortunately, after developing strong emotional feelings for her and telling her so, she is unable to reciprocate and leaves.

He ends up having two caretakers after that, Vera (Moon Bloodgood) and Rod (W. Earl Brown). O’Brien’s wit, charm and generally good disposition allows him to strike up conversations easily with his caretakers on a variety of subjects, making their relationships seem very comfortable. Eventually, O’Brien gets an offer to write an article about disabled people in the area and how they manage to have sexual lives. This gets O’Brien thinking about his own sexuality, his virginity and how he wants to get rid of it. So, he looks into hiring a sex therapist, after getting an okay from his priest.

He finds help in Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Hunt). Limited to six sessions together, they work together on helping O’Brien discover his body and eventually work into sex and sexual intimacy. As they have their sessions together, they learn more about each other and open up to one another, becoming more emotionally invested than therapist and client.

The movie has some real heart in it, and never in a massively cheesy way, I don’t think. It’s got great humor, and O’Brien is very charming and humorous despite his condition. The moments shared between O’Brien and Father Brendan are often quite humorous, but also contain a level of conflict that’s very interesting to watch, I feel. After all, a Catholic priest is basically having to approve of an extra-marital sexual affair between a man and a married woman, as we discover. Such a decision doesn’t come lightly to a priest, I’m sure.

Hunt is well deserved in her Oscar nomination, I find, and I think the writing of the movie was very good. Much better than a certain other screenplay that got an Oscar nomination… Different category, sadly. Anyway, the movie seems to be pretty funny throughout, without any real expectations of heavy emotional investment, but the end really has the potential to be a tear-jerker. It sneaks up on you a bit, hitting you before you realize what’s happened, and that is that O’Brien has won you over with his charm, the same way he wins over most of the people in his life.

I strongly suggest the movie if you’ve got time to see it. It’s worth a viewing.

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