Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Acting Master Classes in Private "Sessions"

     This film marks something of a comeback or breakthrough for writer/director Ben Lewin, his first feature in almost twenty years, although he's been steadily working in television during that time.  In The Sessions, he doesn't really set out to make us marvel at the wit of his script or the boldness of his directorial flourishes.  He merely sets up an interesting narrative, provides the actors with enough meat to chew on, and then gets out of the way and lets them gnaw for all they are worth.  As I said of Tate Taylor when I reviewed The Help last year, when the cast is this good, that's often the best choice to make.  It certainly was in this case.
     In many ways, we've seen this movie before.  It starts with a disabled protaganist who must overcome his challenges (practically useless musculature and dependance upon an iron lung) to have some experience that those of us without disabilities take for granted (losing your virginity).  Many film geeks probably take that experience less for granted than less SOCIALLY disabled members of society, but I digress.  The picture hits all the expected buttons that such a picture should hit, and could have become a pat experience in the hands of lesser actors, but such was not the case.
     Said cast is led by the incomparable John Hawkes, who for three years running has proven himself one of the best character actors working.  This may not be as edgy as his recent work in films like Winter's Bone and Martha Marcy Mae Marlene, but it may have been even more challenging.  One of this formidable performer's greatest strengths has always been his ability to convey a presence that is so much larger than his slight stature.  Here he is forced to funnel that ability through a very limited set of tools.  He is unable to use movement, posture, or any sort of physicality beyond his mouth, neck, and face as Mark.  Somehow he seems every bit as powerful.  He is forced to develop odd skills such as typing with a pencil and maintaining his mostly naked body in strange motionless contorted positions.  He is able to overcome all of these physical challenges and still shine through with a character built of wit and an oddly seductive charisma.
     Helen Hunt is also quite flawless as Cheryl, the sexual surrogate hired to help Mark achieve his goals.  She plays the professional side of Cheryl marvelously, as she subjugates her frustrations over this unusually challenging client in order to help build his confidence and comfort.  We also see a very different woman in brief glimpses of her rather mundane home life as a wife and mother.  Finally we see the two aspects of the whole begin to converge as Mark inevitably touches her heart in ways that she was not prepared for.  I would also like to commend the bravery of woman nearing fifty who can go full frontal with so little apparent insecurity in her body.  She is in FANTASTIC shape by the way, not my thing, but still quite beautiful.
     William H Macy as Mark's bemusedly tolerant priest Father Brendan and Moon Bloodgood as his supportive caregiver Vera, also impress.  Macy gives his best film work in some time, full of both wry comic timing and touching sympathy.  Bloodgood is one of those actresses who is often far better than the material she is given to work with (Terminator: Salvation) and it is nice to see her in a higher quality of film.  She was given far less to do than the other three principle characters but maybe just showing she can hold her own in a scene with these masters will open doors to meatier roles of quality.  I hope so, she's grossly under rated.
     This one stands an outside shot at a Best Picture nod, but will probably have to settle for Best Actor (Hawkes), Best Supporting Actress (Hunt) and maybe Best Adapted Screenplay.  Best Supporting Actor is a possibility for Macy.  Best Comedy at the Globes seems quite likely.  Not a bad haul for a tiny little inspirational film about a disabled guy.
     But the Sessions is a bit more than that, and not just because of the acting.  It also touches lightly (and the whole piece has a fairly light touch) on the media's love/hate relationship with sexuality.  By both putting it front and center and refusing to sensationalize or glamorize it, Lewin shows human sexual nature the respect it deserves but so rarely receives in American films today.  This was a risky project, one that could easily have been schmaltzy or forgettable.  I am glad to say it was neither.  4 1/2 of 5 stars.

Related Articles:  The Help Review, Sept. Oscar Buzz and Predictions - ScreenplaysSupporting PerformersBest Actor and Actress, and PictureMartha's Certified Method (Martha Marcy Mae Marlene review)

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