The Sessions is never quite sure what it wants to be. The balance is completely off. It cares a little too much about its supporting characters and doesn’t cover quite enough of a timeframe to work as a biopic; yet, it tacks on too many scenes at the end to be anything other than a glorification of its main character’s life. It’s uneven and unwilling to follow a straight path. In someone else’s hands it could have been neater and smoother, but thanks to writer/director Ben Lewin, it’s a beautiful, touching mess. And I say that in the nicest possible way.
Lewin cares about his characters so deeply that he ultimately chooses them over his film. He lets Helen Hunt’s Cheryl Cohen Greene interact with her family even though they’re ultimately pointless to the larger subject matter. He lets John Hawkes’ Mark O’Brien have long term goals, even though the subject matter is present-focused. He gives William H. Macy’s Father Brendan a personality beyond that of a standard priest, even though he’s really only a vessel to bounce ideas off. All of these decisions let the film ramble and meander, but they also let the three actors deliver the most honest, brilliant and lovable performances their characters could possibly offer. In place of momentum, pacing and consistency, we get more information and more time with these fully developed people.
It’s not a tradeoff most directors would make, but with this story arc, it might be the right one. The film loosely follows journalist, poet and polio survivor Mark O’Brien (Hawkes) as he tries to have sex with a woman for the first time. That noble quest, once approved by Father Brendan (Macy), leads him to married sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene (Hunt) who offers to teach him about physical intimacy. She knows her way around the bedroom, but more importantly, she knows how to listen and how to learn. Sex might be the goal, but the time they spend together is the real prize, both for their characters and the audience.
O’Brien isn’t a man beaten down by life. He has a few insecurities about his limitations, unable to walk and spending most of his time inside an iron lung, but he also has a sense of humor and valuable conversation to offer. Hawkes is too good to play him like a victim. Instead, he plays him with a mix of snark, optimism and buried sadness, and Hunt’s Cohen Green is the perfect pushback. She too has shortcomings and limitations, but she doesn’t always feel the need to talk about them or even to solve them. These two make sense as people who would and should impact each other’s lives, and watching them lay in bed, whether naked or clothed, feels like genuine intimacy. It feels like a comforting place to co-exist, even amidst the awkwardness of sexual flubs and nervous foreplay.
In theory, these mesmerizing interactions are what the movie is about. They certainly represent the film at its strongest, but The Sessions is so excited about making fully developed human beings that it wanders from the shared bedroom and gives each extraneous conflicts to deal with and unnecessary resolutions beyond the immediate subject matter. It introduces clutter. Are the scenes between Mark and Cheryl more powerful because we know more about her personal life? Yes. But is that extra ten percent of emotion worth introducing her son and husband into the plot? That’s extremely debatable, especially given the percentage of the 94 minute runtime it takes up.
In its quieter conversations and more poignant moments, The Sessions is damn near perfect. Its performances are nothing short of incredible. The chemistries between Hawkes and Hunt and Hawkes and Macy are a joy to watch, and even though the whole package isn’t quite great, it still adds up to one of the better films that’ll open this year.