Combustible Celluloid
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With: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy, Moon Bloodgood, Annika Marks, Adam Arkin, Rhea Perlman, W. Earl Brown, Robin Weigert, Blake Lindsley, Ming Lo, Rusty Schwimmer, Jennifer Kumiyama, Tobias Forrest, Jarrod Bailey
Written by: Ben Lewin
Directed by: Ben Lewin
MPAA Rating: R for strong sexuality including graphic nudity and frank dialogue
Running Time: 95
Date: 01/23/2012

The Sessions (2012)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Heavy Breathing

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The Sessions is one of those disease-of-the-week movies that usually get released in the fall and usually result in an Oscar nomination or two. We're talking movies like The King's Speech, The Sea Inside, and My Left Foot, though the genre can also extend to things like alcoholism (Crazy Heart) or blindness (Ray).

Usually these movies are very earnest and provide a terrific showcase for at least one lead actor, if not a supporting actor or two. And despite the relative sameness of all these movies, the rigid adherence to certain rules and the general lack of artistic expression or experimentation, it's fairly hard to hate them.

The Sessions is no exception. Our Best Actor contender here is John Hawkes, who is a terrific actor and has one nomination already for Winter's Bone. He plays Mark O'Brien, a real-life poet and journalist who lived in Berkeley until his death in 1999. Mark came down with polio as a child and spent much of his adult life in an iron lung. He's also the subject of an Oscar-winning documentary short, Jessica Yu's Breathing Lessons (1996).

This story takes place during one period of Mark's life, in the 1980s, when he began seeing a sex therapist, Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt). As a movie about sex, it's braver than some -- this year's bland Hysteria comes to mind -- but not as brave as others, such as last year's Shame.

Director Ben Lewin, who also has polio, and who hasn't made a feature film since 1994, smoothes out this material skillfully. He gives the movie a bright, light touch and makes it all very easy to watch and digest. (Sometimes these movies can be unbearably heavy.) He spends some time on certain episodes like Mark falling in love with some of his prettier caretakers, and them, in return, expressing that they love him, too, "but not in the same way." (Just about any shy, sensitive male has heard this at some point and can identify.)

Hunt plays Cheryl with a touch of relaxed carnality, similar to the comfort she brought to her hit TV series "Mad About You." She quickly strips off her clothes for the first session, and she's lovely, even though she's not chiseled or airbrushed to look like a Playboy playmate. Lewin cleverly includes scenes of her at home with her philosopher husband (Adam Arkin), to round out her character and make her more human.

Other supporters also provide flavor, notably Moon Bloodgood in an atypical role as a stoic caretaker, and William H. Macy in a loveable role as a priest who uncertainly listens to Mark's reports.

And that brings us to Hawkes. Ordinarily he's a fierce actor; in his Winter's Bone performance, he was like a switchblade, dangerous and ready to snap at any moment. Here he's the opposite, eloquent, funny, and romantic. Indeed, The Sessions is essentially a romance, wherein a man must try to find a place of comfort within himself before a woman can be attracted to him.

That's perhaps what the movie does best of all: it brings love into the equation. Once that happens, the disease-of-the-week stuff mostly just falls away.
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