The Pitch: Apparently lying around all day on your back actually makes it harder to get sex. Who knew?
The Review: 2012 was supposed to have been a pivotal year for attitudes towards the disabled, but six months after the Paralympics regrettably very little seems to have changed. 2012 was also notable for high profile films which seemed more at ease with portraying relationships, including sexual relationships, and from Silver Linings Playbook to Rust And Bone cinema at least seems to be more comfortable with the notion that people all experience the same urges, no matter what their physical or mental challenges. In the spirit of openness and honesty, writer and director Ben Lewin takes that a stage further with this frank and disarming tale, based in fact, of the struggles of one man to seek out sex by whatever means necessary. Attempting to do that more sympathetically, polio sufferer Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) seeks counsel and spiritual consent from his priest (William H. Macy) before engaging a sex counsellor (Helen Hunt) to explore the possibilities still available within the restrictions of his illness.
It’s clear from the outset that this is both a character and a film with a singular purpose, although it’s a multi-faceted one in each case. In terms of the character, Mark’s adjusted to his circumstances about as well as you could expect, but this one final frontier is one he can only approach with a little extra help. The discussions with Macy’s priest serve as an exploration of Mark’s conscience, very much a throwback to old-fashioned values but it’s not giving much away to suggest that this isn’t a deep and meaningful exploration of the ethics of intercourse outside wedlock. Deep and exploration might be a better description for the main thrust (sorry) of the narrative, as Mark and therapist Cheryl embark on six of the titular sessions, as Mark attempts to confront both his physical and mental limitations to see if he can overcome both them and the difficulty of trying to think appropriate thoughts while a woman sits across the room with no clothes on and describes sex in terms not normally found outside biology textbooks.
So any worthiness from tackling the taboo subjects of disability and sex quickly dissipates, and we’re left with a character study wherein Mark’s disability or discomfort could work as a metaphor for any other affliction, whether more severely physical or equally cripplingly emotional. Lewin is keen to explore his characters, but the only logical path to take is more of the therapist take on the same ground When Harry Met Sally covers; where that looked at whether friends would be able to keep that separation if sex intruded, here it’s the separation between sex and love, and Mark’s attempts to understand in his own mind how fine the line between the two is. The Sessions relies more on the honesty of Mark’s exploration of those feelings than anything else, but proves to be just about enough to sustain it.
Lewin’s direction isn’t flashy and The Sessions is very much an actor’s film at its core. It’s the four central performances (Hawkes, Macy, Hunt and Adam Arkin as Hunt’s husband) that do the heavy lifting of the acting, and most attention has fallen on Hawkes for his depiction of polio sufferer Mark and for Hunt for her disarming performance, for which she does spend more time with her clothes on than off. It’s Hawkes who’s the revelation, managing to be humorous and sympathetic but never coming across as damaged or disadvantaged, even given his circumstances. The therapist role feels practically written for Helen Hunt, and her expertise at bringing characters to life with a minimum of background detail helps her to quickly shade in what are actually very lightly characterised relationships with her on-screen family. But the most enjoyable element is probably the banter between Hawkes and his priest and confidant Macy, their open church confessionals getting most directly to the heart of the matter. Given the subject matter, The Sessions comes off feeling a little lightweight, but is nonetheless a pleasant enough exploration of a couple of fields often less trodden.
Why see it at the cinema: It’s not hugely cinematic visually or aurally, but there’s a smattering of laughs to be had and the sensitivity of the script lends itself to the intimacy of a dark room.
What about the rating? Rated 15 for strong sex and sex references. Imagine reading a photographic copy of the Kama Sutra with captions written by a biologist, and that’ll give you a fair idea of the sex scenes. The swearing would happily pass for a 12A, but overall the BBFC have this one right.
My cinema experience: Saw this on a Friday night late showing at the Cineworld in Cambridge. I bought my ticket at the refreshments, as that was the only think open that time of night, but consequently there was no queue. (And briefly, no staff, as the one person serving inexplicably disappeared for two minutes before serving me. He did apologise, so no grudge held.) The showing itself had no projection or sound issues, although the fact that there were only around ten of us in attendance, and apart from one couple at the back we all appeared to be middle aged men, left me feeling I should have been wearing my brown mac every time Helen Hunt took her clothes off.
The Corridor Of Uncertainty: Around 25 minutes of adverts, trailers and announcements; when the screening doesn’t start until 23:20, every second counts and frustratingly that’s one of the longest sets I’ve seen at that particular cinema in a couple of months.
The Score: 7/10
The Review: The Sundance Film Festival has now been running for over 30 years, but in that time, although it’s initiated and promoted the careers of many illustrious film makers, the movies picking up the jury awards have generally found life a little tougher. But rather than being the kiss of death, receiving the Grand Jury prize seems to have given Winter’s Bone momentum, and talk of much bigger awards in next year’s season is already being banded around. In this case, that talk is justified, because what Sundance has discovered is a movie of real power, and within it a number of potential talents for the future.
At the centre of Winter’s Bone is Jennifer Lawrence. She portrays Ree Dolly, effectively left as head of the family despite being only seventeen, due to her mother’s spiral into illness and her father having disappeared after his seemingly only talent, for making crystal meth, has gotten him into trouble and leaves him facing a long jail term. Despite her age, she seems more than capable of caring for the family, although she has become reliant on the charity of neighbours due to their dire financial situation; when the bail bondsman arrives to announce that Dad used the family farm as part of his bail bond, it becomes apparent that finding him is the only way to ensure that she’s not protecting her family from somewhere in the woods.
The local community is isolated, with a division of roles down the line of the sexes that Ree finds herself on the wrong side of if she hopes to gain attention to her plight. But there’s a steely determination about her that keeps her on the path to finding the truth, and a willingness to consider any option. Unfortunately, this only serves to put her increasingly into harm’s way and she finds herself unsupported and challenged at every turn; not only does no-one want her to find her father, but it seems whatever’s happened is enough for them to be uncomfortable asking questions.
Given that she’s only a little older than the character she plays, Lawrence’s portrayal is remarkable. She perfectly embodies the resilience needed to stand up to the masculine hierarchy of the community who barely want to acknowledge her presence, but also shows her tender side when supporting the family, and the family’s plight feels all the more real for it. Those confrontations have a real edge from the start, but as matters escalate and the locals show their hand, or indeed their fists, Ree’s intractability shines through and is expertly balanced in all of the performances.
The other significant credit must go to director Debra Granik, who also contributes towards the screenplay adaptation. The bleakness of the community settings is thoroughly captured, and Granik uses this in conjunction with the tone of the performances to create an air of tension that threatens, and ultimately delivers, true menace. The pacing is unhurried but this just allows for the movie to apply its vice-like grip with that tension, and as events unfold there are some genuine edge-of-the-seat moments, before the narrative reaches its unflinchingly brutal resolution. But don’t be put off by the thought of that – although bleak, there is still a sense of hope, if not optimism, couched within that resolution. There is also an occasional sense of humour tempered through the bleakness, but more than enough to want to encourage you to become trapped in their world. Lawrence and Granik deserve all the plaudits they’re getting, and you owe it to yourself to experience this stunning adaptation of Daniel Woodrell’s novel.
Why see it at the cinema: The stark cinematography is well complemented by the intense performances, but the fact that the performances are understated, but effectively so, means that the big screen is the best place to capture all the subtleties.
The Score: 10/10