Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Sessions (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway
The Sessions 

"The Sessions" is a new film based on the experiences of the late poet Mark O'Brien and his intimate misadventures with a sex therapist. Mr O' Brien, in addition to being a fine and evocative poet was also an outspoken journalist who wrote articles in various magazines. 
Physically, he happened to have polio and was literally boxed up with an "iron lung" which looks like an immense and medieval looking  cylinder that his body is placed in. To me, it looks like a space capsule from the 1960s but I don't mean to trivialize it. O'Brien passed away in 1999 at the age of 49 and his life was by no means depressing or downbeat. He left a solid legacy of poetry in addition to many trailblazing articles which paved the way for many of the wheeled, braced or prosthetic-users among us to live barrier free lives, regardless of whether those barriers are physical or mental.
"The Sessions" focuses on the slice of O'Brien's life when he was living at the University of Berkeley as a journalist. Despite his aggressive accomplishments academically, O'Brien was viscerally and almost spiritually blighted by missing experiences of physical intimacy which eluded him like a precious perfume.
O'Brien is played with a great delicate  energy by John Hawkes who is known for his frequently hard bitten, tobacco-tossed and vicious roles in the films "Winter's Bone", "Mary Marcy May Marlene" and the lesser known but equally confrontational "Higher Ground". The noisy intimidation that he displayed in these previous films have vanished replaced by pensive longings and punctuated gasps and this is a refreshing feat, given that the actor was quickly becoming typecast. Now I can exhale. Hawkes is The Horrible no more.
O'Brien, after much cerebral vexation and visits to his local Catholic Church (which pits him in what feels like some very real combat between Good and Evil: his  iron cylinder placed in a diagonal line underneath a mural of The Virgin Mary) resolves to see a sex surrogate, which is a euphemism for therapist. 
There have been so many films featuring physically challenged people being pulled under and over the heart. Some are excellent. Some are good. While others are a little less than good. "The Sessions" works well because it doesn't over-decorate or bog the action down with melodrama or syrup. Events are presented as they very well may have appeared without flourish, fanfare and only a couple of crocodile tears. The story moves along smoothly as is:  nakedness is shown as nakedness and awkwardness as awkwardness, and it happens in a very organic way. 
This is important.
The actors have room to breathe. They even deliver some sexually explicit content with a few winks and humor in keeping with O'Brien's personality.
Helen Hunt gives a very warm and giving performance as therapist Cheryl Greene who displays a wonderful authenticity as a professional with a light, yet matter of fact verve. And the ubiquitous William H. Macy gives his semi-wacky but priestly best (no surprise for Macy fans) as Father Brendan who weighs all matters of the flesh with the wrinkled creasing torment of Willem Dafoe and then seems to all but click his catholic heels.
Such is life.
The only asymmetry  in Macy's collar is  the moment when he heads over to celebrate with O'Brien after hours with a six pack and a headband. A priest on the prowl! Radical and a bit too much like "Wild Hogs" to take seriously. But thankfully this corny Catholicism only lasts a minute.
Most of the exchanges with Macy and Hawkes though, work quite well. Macy has a leprechaunish glee in his role that balances nicely with his saltpeter saturninity.
"The Sessions" moves at a brisk pace, unsentimental with its punches (unless you count the shot of O'Brien's furry orange kitty that sits atop his empty iron lung) and succeeds with spirit, due in large part to the gusto, the anxious cleavage tickles and touches that are shared between Hunt and Hawkes. 
"The Sessions" is neither confining nor dismal but invigoratingly light with a simple grace.
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