For a generation, Helen Hunt has played the eternally maternal role – “As Good As It Gets,” “Pay It Forward,” etc. So this choice of film, its immediacy and her unflinching nudity seems shocking on the surface. Yet there is a pervasive feeling that the film never really goes too far down the sexually-liberated path. Just as things heat up, the script springs out a joke to keep the mood light. In the end it plays out as if the Hallmark movie channel decided to make a risqué film.
Based on the poignantly optimistic autobiographical writings of California-based journalist and poet Mark O’Brien, The Sessions tells the story of a man confined to an iron lung who is determined – at age 38 – to lose his virginity. With the help of his therapists and the guidance of his priest, he sets out to make his dream a reality. (Synopsis by Fox Searchlight)
There are a few things working against this film living up to its Sundance credibility. For starters, it has far too much Hollywood influence. The storyline tries to force a romantic comedy plot onto a story that should be able to stand alone. In fact, it already has, as “Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien.” Add to that a timid reaction to the actual sexuality in the film. While there are some fairly frank discussions about the act, it is generally danced around instead of addressed. The most shocking part is Hunt’s nudity, which is addressed early in the film.
While it might be too harsh a criticism, if you are going to make a film about sex, then really focus on it. There are already several indie films that deal with the subject in a far more taboo fashion, “Shortbus” being a prominent example. In fact, Lars von Trier is already pushing the envelope further than “The Sessions” can even fathom. Even Hunt herself made an almost identical film back in 1992. All that being said, there are quite a few things “The Sessions” does right. Those should have been the focus of the film instead of a half-hearted attempt to be edgy.
What works extremely well is the interplay of O’Brien’s Catholic faith with his project. Despite the amount of screen time it receives, the topic never gets as fully developed as it should. The conversations with his priest and the internal dialogue over the morality of hiring a prostitute, sorry, a “sex surrogate,” is the high point. Again, the Hollywood influence creeps in, as his priest (played by William H. Macy) is shockingly liberal on the subject being discussed. To make it worse, great pains are made to show how “hip” the priest is. He shows up with beer. Smokes on the sly. Passively encourages O’Brien to get laid. Just like your priest, right?
William H. Macy’s performance sums up the film as a whole. The character is written too loosely, just as the film is itself. Every monologue Macy’s character invokes as he stares at a cross with O’Brien in the background reminds the audience that this film exists somewhere between the worlds of indie filmmaking and a TNT original movie. The great sin is that, when it is all over, it leaves you feeling like you are missing something, like you wanted more. That doesn’t mean it is a bad film. It just could have been executed better.
“See It/ Rent It/ Skip It”: Rent it. Unless you want to pay $12 to see Helen Hunt in all her glory and leave with Catholic guilt.
TWO AND A HALF STARS out of four.
Directed by Ben Lewin.
Rated R for strong sexuality including graphic nudity and frank dialogue.
Runtime: 1 hr. and 38 min.