Monday Movies Believes in a God With a Sense of Humor

The Sessions is a beautiful story, tenderly told. Based on a widely linked 1990 magazine article, it is the (mostly) true story of Mark O’Brien, a thirty-something man with polio who lives confined to a wheeled bed or an iron lung and who, wishing to experience sexual connection, seeks out a sex surrogate. It is not a story of “triumphing over disability,” although there are various triumphs and more than one disabled character.

O’Brien, played by John Hawkes, is an observant Catholic who “can’t tolerate the idea of not having someone to blame for all this.” The movie cuts back and forth between the life he leads with attendants, friends, and the subjects of his writing, and his conversations with and confessions to Father Brendan, a liberal Berkeley priest (William H. Macy). The movie’s unshowy portrayal of O’Brien’s Catholicism is remarkable. O’Brien takes his religion seriously, and it provides a structure for both his succor and his shame, but it’s not a totalizing experience, just a part of his life. It’s one of many details — the Berkeley setting is another — that give the movie a subtle, lived-in specificity. When we first meet O’Brien, he’s crinkling his nose to fend off a sneeze; in two other scenes, characters lift their hands to scratch their noses, a throwaway gesture that illuminates the extent of O’Brien’s prison.

Helen Hunt plays Cheryl, the sex surrogate who O’Brien finds through a therapist. Hunt is matter-of-factly naked and sexual, and the movie’s comic heart lies in their awkward and tender sessions, limited to six. There is a drama of transference and counter-transference — more commonly known as a love story — that feels invented (the various articles bear that out), but the characters feel real throughout. One theme that returns is how O’Brien’s helpers’ partners get jealous of him — it’s well played with the boyfriend of one of his nurses, but a little strained with Cheryl’s husband.

Hawkes is a good bet for an Oscar nomination, but I’d bet against a win–the movie is moving, but not bombastically or unbearably so. There may be a little too much joy.

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5 Responses to “Monday Movies Believes in a God With a Sense of Humor”

  1. Adam Kotsko Says:

    In the past week, we watched all three of the Indiana Jones movies (excluding the more recent one as non-canonical). We had intended to do a “movie marathon” with all three last weekend, but didn’t have the endurance needed.

    My view is that they probably should’ve just stopped with Raiders of the Lost Ark. Temple of Doom is a monument to racism and sexism, while Last Crusade is totally forgettable. Fun fact, though — apparently the controversy over Temple of Doom‘s PG rating led to the introduction of PG-13.

  2. Craig McFarlane Says:

    Sean Connery and Harrison Ford on the blimp–perfect scene. Says everything about the human condition: there’s nothing to communicate about but the fact of being unable to communicate. Also, “No ticket.” Tell me about it!

    I was really hoping for a review of “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 2.”

  3. mattintoledo Says:

    I’ve spoken to multiple people who liked the second Indiana Jones movie because it was the only time he was just doing the right thing, as opposed to trying to find an ancient relic that would make him a legend in his field. I had never thought of it like that and was disappointed I didn’t notice that myself, but still held it was the weakest of the three.

    My wife and I saw Skyfall and enjoyed it, but I have nothing particularly interesting to add to what Josh said last week. Well, maybe one thing. I thought it was funny Albert Finney, the man who created Jason Bourne, was the Bond family’s groundskeeper.

  4. Josh K-sky Says:

    I was really hoping for a review of “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 2.”

    I have friends for that.

  5. mattintoledo Says:

    Oh, and I remember the PG-13 debate back in the day. If the Weekly Reader was a reliable news source, it is true Temple of Doom was held up as an example of a movie that might warrant the new rating. Gremlins was the other oft cited example.


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