"I have a feeling that God is going to give you a free pass on this one. Go for it."
Father Brendan (William H. Macy)
"The Sessions," which made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival on this day in 2012, was a thought–provoking movie for me.
And, no, I am not talking about thoughts provoked by the sight of Helen Hunt in the nude, but I will make this observation on that subject — for a woman approaching her 50th birthday, Hunt was astonishingly beautiful when she made the movie. In fact, I think she would be considered astonishing for a woman of any age.
But even though "The Sessions" was about sex, that wasn't exclusively what it was about. The sexual part was more clinical than erotic.
John Hawkes played Mark O'Brien, a poet who had been handicapped since having polio as a child. The audience learned early that he wasn't paralyzed. His muscles simply didn't function as they normally would, and he had to rely on an iron lung to survive. He sought the help of a sexual surrogate (played by Hunt) in losing his virginity.
I guess the first thought I had about this movie when I first heard about it — and hadn't yet seen it — was that, while I was sorry about his condition, his desire to lose his virginity was nothing new. Boys have been looking for ways to lose their virginity — and agonizing over the pursuit of their first time — since time began.
Consequently, I regarded it as an outgrowth of the belief that somehow every person on this planet is entitled to have every possible experience that there is — and that one has been cheated somehow if denied that. But a realistic appraisal of the world and life in it has to be that those who do get to experience everything that life has to offer are few and far between.
A very small percentage get to be rich and/or famous. Most people don't get to play professional sports or perform in a rock band. Many people don't even get to live long compared to what most people would consider normal life spans. That's the way it is. Life isn't fair. All the people I have known who have died had things they wanted to do but never did. Yet I frequently hear it said when someone dies that it is lamentable that the person never did X or Y or Z — as if that were an exception to the rule.
But when I saw "The Sessions," I realized that Hawkes' character wasn't worried about losing his virginity the way adolescent boys do. It was his way of reclaiming part of his life that was taken by polio. He also sensed that he would not live much longer (in fact, he lived more than a decade after the events of "The Sessions," but still died at the young age of 49). That lent a sense of urgency to his quest.
He may well have been driven as well by the desire to experience all the things that able–bodied people do, but one did not get that sense from the movie. It was simply an experience he wanted to have — even though one of his assistants told him that sex was "overrated but necessary" — and, in keeping with his Catholic upbringing, at first tried to have it the conventional way with a marriage partner. When that didn't work out, he pursued the sex therapist route.
An intriguing side character was Hunt's husband, played by Adam Arkin, whose love for his wife was evident and his jealousy over his accurate perception that she was developing an emotional attachment to her client could be painful to watch. He knew what his wife did for a living, that it involved sexual contact with other men, and the sensation the audience got was that he usually was not threatened by her business relationships.
But her relationship with Hawkes was, for whatever reason, different.
What can I say about William H. Macy's performance? I've always liked his off–the–wall work. I saw him being interviewed on one of the late–night shows once, and he observed that, in his movie roles, "I never get the girl — but I am the most likely one to stuff her in a trash bag." You've gotta like a guy with that kind of sense of humor.
His character had a nice sense of humor in this movie as well, but he wasn't a homicidal maniac. He was Hawkes' spiritual adviser and friend.
In fact, it was his character who inspired the headline I have given this post. Near the end of the movie, he told Hawkes that he had prepared a short speech "for the forlorn" that he had planned to deliver to revive Hawkes' spirits but decided he would not when he found that Hawkes was faring better than he had expected. Hawkes encouraged him to go ahead, and Macy said, "Love is a journey."
When Hawkes asked him to continue, Macy confessed, "That's it. I told you it was short."
I liked the review Roger Ebert wrote in October 2012 when the movie had its limited theatrical release: It "isn't really about sex at all," Ebert wrote. "It is about two people who can be of comfort to each other and about the kindness that forms between them. This film rebukes and corrects countless brainless and cheap sex scenes in other movies. It's a reminder that we must be kind to one another."