(2012, US, d. Ben Lewin)
Touted as a heavy-weight this awards season is The Sessions, the story of Mark O’Brien, a polio-stricken poet who hires a “sex surrogate” to lose his virginity. But despite the film’s hype and humble storytelling, I found The Sessions – though not without its clever and honest moments – to be an exercise in how not to write a screenplay.
I’ll start with the bad stuff. Independent movies such as this don’t usually go wrong in the screenwriting. They fall apart in the production. I found the opposite to be true with this film. Filling a script with cheap tricks to get the protagonists to express their feelings is not good writing. It’s easy writing. And there were many times I felt that was the case with this film.
I remember one moment particularly. After having had a sex session with Mark, Cheryl (played by Helen Hunt) picks up the phone to call her boss. Her boss, who the audience was barely introduced to in the film’s first act, asks Helen what she thinks of Mark. The film proceeds on a brief monologue that tells the audience exactly what Helen is thinking. I was shaking my head in the theaters.
It’s not like the film didn’t have the material to survive without moments like that. It totally did. And it helps tremendously when you have actors as talented and nuanced as Helen Hunt and John Hawkes anchoring the film. In fact, looking back on it, if there’s any reason to put The Sessions on a ‘must-see’ list, it would be for John Hawkes’ incredible performance. Immobile throughout the entire film, Hawkes stretches his acting muscles with apparent ease and conveys the emotional arc of a very complex character.
Surprisingly, I wasn’t as much of a fan with Hunt’s performance. She’s been receiving lots of award attention this year but I really couldn’t tell you why. It wasn’t a bad performance. But I didn’t think it was anything special either. Maybe that’s because I couldn’t get past the insane amounts of makeup and/or face-work that had been done to her. It’s a shame: I wish older women could just be allowed to age gracefully in Hollywood instead of being forced to put on a face to keep work steady. But that’s a rant for another time. Let’s get back to the criticisms.
Going on with the theme of the screenplay, I thought – in addition to resorting to cheap tricks – writer/director Ben Lewin threw in some really strange attempts at humor. As if to tell the audience to relax. Not only were these scenes not funny, they really poked at the film itself, which was unable or unwilling to explore anything deeper than a surface-level (save for the performances).
Finally, William H. Macy. Usually a very reliable actor in any scenario, Macy’s character did nothing to serve the story apart from act as a forum for Mark to express his own feelings. It really wasn’t his fault. He was just trying the best with the material he had.
The Sessions did have its moments. Particularly in the beginning, Lewin does a very good job of setting the stage for what’s about to come. Unfortunately, he hits his peak early.
And that’s all there is to that.