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ADVANCE: The Sessions - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
ADVANCE: The Sessions
Directing: B+
Acting: A-
Writing: B+
Cinematography: B
Editing: B+

It could be argued that The Sessions is a sign of the times. In what other time could a movie so focused on sex come across as so wholesome? And impressively, the wholesomeness here isn't heavy-handed or forced. There's a touching sweetness in this story -- and without any of the cloying schmaltziness suggested by the trailer. In other words, don't judge this movie by that "inspirational" trailer. This is actually worth seeing.

I mean, even though Helen Hunt looks a little over-botoxed. That's a little distracting. Half her face looks like a prosthetic. I think some natural lines would look more attractive on her. But William H. Macy has enough lines for the both of them.

This is supposed to be based on a true story. Naturally, there's some pretty heavy Hollywood simplification going on here. This story is a bit tidy to be something completely true to life. But so what? It's a movie; you go to movies to be entertained; The Sessions delivers. Even with Helen Hunt's unnaturally smooth face.

John Hawkes plays real-life character Mark O'Brien, who was paralyzed from the neck down from polio. He lives in an iron lung but can last several hours outside of it with a breathing tube. A rather religious yet apparently fairly irreverent man, he consults with his priest (Macy) regarding his desire to lose his virginity -- a particular challenge given his circumstances. William H. Macy helps elevate a part written pretty much just for the use of laugh lines, and gives it some personality and at least a slight bit of depth.

After falling for a young woman who had been assisting him, then scaring her off by proposing marriage a bit too soon, Mark finally decides to hire a sex surrogate, Cheryl. To Helen Hunt's credit, she takes a fearless approach to a very specialized kind of sexually liberated woman. There's a pretty good amount of female nudity. I wondered how many brainstorming sessions there were that led to the decision that Cheryl would have a landing strip.

Cheryl is married and has a teenage son. We never find out about how she became a sex surrogate or how she came to have a husband apparently okay with her career choice. It's clear that the husband knows what Cheryl does. We can only presume her son does not. Cheryl's circumstances, and how she got into them, are rife with intriguing questions that never get explored. This is Mark's story, sure, but it's Cheryl's too -- yet much of hers is left out.

Mark sure has a stunning body for a guy who can't control his muscles. Most audiences won't be thinking of these kinds of details, though. As Father Brendan says, "Love is a journey." The Sessions zeroes in on one such, very unique, journey. And the emotional nuances of this journey are on full display, very well conveyed by both Helen Hunt and especially John Hawkes, who gives a great performance using nothing more than his head. Everyone else has body language at their disposal, but not him.

It's a rare movie that's so frank about sexuality and yet is surprisingly respectful toward religion. Granted, Mark gets some good one-liners in at religion's expense, but his Catholicism is clearly important to him. Father Brendan smokes and drinks but is there for Mark when he needs him. There's a rare level of humanity to these characters, given the nature of the story.

The Sessions could easily have devolved into caricature and cheap jokes. It's always a delicate balance in movies depicting disabled people. As always, some are unhappy with the lead part, a disabled character, being portrayed by a fully-abled person. But this is simply the nature of acting. And besides, the movie does feature some genuinely disabled actors. It's one of many ways the movie really sets itself apart in a positive way. Writer-director Ben Lewin exercises admirable restraint, keeping his themes of self-actualization subtle but to the point.

This is one movie where the phrase "crowd pleaser" isn't just a cliched phrase that gets promoters excited. It doesn't do it perfectly, but it gets the job done.

Helen Hunt and John Hawkes partake in THE SESSIONS.

Overall: B+

Opens Friday, November 2.
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