When I tell you that the new film The Sessions is about a severely disabled man learning to love, do you immediately start to retch at the sickly sweet, softly lit feel-good-ness of it all? As a general rule you probably should — stories like these, in even the most competent hands, tend to become exploitative in their insatiable quest for heart-string-tugging moments. Though trying to discuss real, serious topics, these stories — think A Walk to Remember, many Lifetime and Hallmark TV movies, and various YA novels about dying teens — create places that in no way resemble the real, serious world. That's why people are prone to dismiss these sorts of weepies as corny nonsense, because they ham-handedly manipulate emotions they've really no right to manipulate. So, yes, when given a plot summary of The Sessions — a man made almost completely immobile by childhood polio receives love and compassion from a kindhearted therapist — you are right to initially gag. But take heart. Take real, genuine heart: The Sessions is, in fact, a wonderfully humane and honestly, sincerely touching little movie about nice, decent people doing nice, decent things and, of course, finding love in the process. It's the crown jewel of the malady genre and, really, exists on its own as one of the better films of the season.
Which is not to say that it is without its own dollop of sugar. Though based on a real story, specifically an article written about his own life by San Francisco poet and journalist Mark O'Brien, the world of The Sessions sure is a friendly place. There's nary a mean word or dash of snark or cynicism anywhere in the picture. And while that ubiquitous goodwill might seem cloying somewhere else, here it works, because this film, written and directed by Ben Lewin (Georgia), aims to tell a nice story, because sometimes nice stories exist, even here in the cruel world. We root for our guy Mark (John Hawkes) and, heck, everyone in the movie does too, and that's just fine.
Something that does, rather significantly, set this movie apart from the rest of its herd is that it is full of sex. And I mean full. The engine of the movie's uplift is this: Mark, confined to an iron lung for all but a few hours a day, has never known the romantic touch of a woman. Unlike a paraplegic, Mark has sensation on all parts of his body, there's just nothing he can do about it. He thus has messy encounters with his attendants when they're bathing him and, knowing his "use-by date" might be up soon, has begun to feel a creeping lack and frustration that, though he is a devout Catholic, even frequent visits with his priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy), can't fill or satisfy. After falling in love with a pretty young attendant and telling her so, causing her to tearily leave her post, Mark gets the blessing from Father Brendan to pursue appointments, or sessions, with what's known as a sex surrogate. Not a hooker, no sir, but a sex therapist who gets fully hands-on with the job. Mark first learns about sex surrogacy through a woman named Carmen (Jennifer Kumiyama) whom he interviews for an article about sex and the disabled. Carmen is not some beatific character whose nobility in the face of struggle we are supposed to cheer on and feel emboldened by. She's just a regular lady who happens to be in a wheelchair, and who's open about sex and wants to help Mark. The film has a refreshingly frank approach to matters generally whispered about away from polite company, a bluntness that stands in pleasant, airy contrast (and complement) to the bright and sunny camerawork and all the muted, calm tones of the production design. This movie is very much about sex, but here is nothing dirty about it.
The sex surrogate that Carmen recommends is Cheryl, a smart and poised woman played with, well, smarts and poise by Helen Hunt. Hunt is an actress who can sometimes seem removed, distant behind a wall of skepticism or neurosis, but here is brimming with up-close compassion and a kind of intellectual earthiness that makes her both motherly and sexy. I know that sounds gross, but what I really mean is that she's caring and comforting while also being a fluidly, openly sexual person. We see a lot of Helen Hunt naked, folks, but given the easygoing, sensitive tones of the film, her nudity is never shocking or leering. Instead, that she's so comfortable with her body relaxes the rest of us, eases us through all the squishy language — ejaculate! intercourse! — and technical visuals we're exposed to throughout. In the beginning we're nervous, as is Mark, but eventually we come to love our bodies, and their bodies, and everyone's bodies. Bodies are great, and special, and should be appreciated, the film gently teaches us.
The bulk of the movie unfolds over the course of these sessions, both sex sessions with Cheryl and counseling/debriefings with an increasingly interested (but never pruriently so) Father Brendan, and we slowly watch people change. Mark, a Boston transplant with a wry wit, lets his nervousness subside and thus enables his innate charm to shine through. While Cheryl, a professional who limits her number of sessions with each client to six lest attachment form, begins to, of course, form an attachment. This isn't that movie, though. Cheryl has a family and they matter to her, and Mark understands that. The connection they form is really more about two people recognizing the goodness in one another and being moved by it. Goodness, really, is all around them. It's in Mark's attendants, especially the new girl Vera, a taciturn type who nonetheless exhibits a knowing protectiveness of her charge. Vera is played by the actress Moon Bloodgood, who's mostly done action-adventure stuff prior to this, and it's a sign of this film's generosity and grace that she fits right in with the quiet patter. She does strong, understated stuff with a small role and I'd like to see more and bigger from her in this vein. Macy is another totem of goodness here, all shaggy hair and crinkle-faced compassion. It's a testament to Macy's talents that he can employ the same qualities in two different roles and come up with completely opposite results; on Showtime's Shameless his hound dog droopiness communicates years of selfish destructiveness. In The Sessions it's simply the sign of a man comfortable in his years, wizened in the vernacular of the everyday.
Really, though, the movie belongs to Hawkes. Two of this fine actor's more recent big-screen roles were that of a sad-eyed menace in the Appalachian odyssey Winter's Bone and a quietly looming cult leader in Martha Marcy May Marlene. So to see him like this, completely exposed and vulnerable, is perhaps a bit jarring (though not really when you consider his affable, tender work on Deadwood), but he does it beautifully, creating oceans of feeling with tilts of his head and flutters of his thin eyelids. And he's not so delicate as he looks. Mark, like Carmen, is not a saintly hero figure. He's a regular guy in irregular circumstances, but still no less impulsive or prone to misguided rudeness. Which is why he's such a good complement to Cheryl's patience and thick-skinnedness. Hawkes and Hunt do lovely work together — his Boston accent is a bit better than hers (Cheryl is supposed to be from Salem; we don't much buy it) — but in all other ways they are wonderfully in sync, all the fleshy giving and taking working in awkward, delicate harmony. They have many intimate scenes together, ones of touching and pressing and all manner of other activity, but watching it we never feel like intruders. There's something welcoming about this instructional congress; it's a tutorial with heart-beating humanity added to it.
Lewen has made a sweet film, and I don't mean "sweet" in any sort of a pejorative or diminutive sense. It really is a kind-natured, well-meaning, faintly spiritual rumination on some pretty big emotions and existential questions, all aided along by Hawkes' lyrical narration — O'Brien was a poet, after all. The movie ends much in the way we know it's going to end, but we've seen such new and exciting things experienced throughout — not just the losing of one's V-card, but all the intricacies and nuances of human connection — that the inevitable denouement doesn't feel rote at all. Marco Beltrami has written a lilting, wistful score that Lewen employs deftly, and, while we never quite strongly enough get the sense that the movie is supposed to take place in 1988, all of the design details are perfectly homey, familiar, and soothing. This is a movie that stirs up big things through small means, through stillness and touch, through simple smiles. It's not the most profound, daring, or arresting thing you'll see at the movies this fall, but it just might tug at those strings you once thought untuggable.
Another losin' it narrative opens this week, this one far more familiar in its tropes and rhythms and milieu. For some reason someone's decided to make another teen comedy/romance about The First Time, called The First Time, because they think they've something unique to say about it. I'm not sure that that someone, writer/director Jon Kasdan, ultimately does have a new perspective, but he makes a cute enough case.
The First Time concerns two smart, seemingly borderline-popular teens named Dave (Teen Wolf's Dylan O'Brien) and Aubrey (The Secret Circle's Britt Robertson), who meet in a clean little alleyway behind a high school house party and get to talking, rather suddenly, about their fears, wants, neuroses, etc. Dave has been friend-zoned by the hot/sweet girl of his dreams, Jane (Victorious' Victoria Justice), but is hoping for one more chance at love before they graduate, while Aubrey, an artsy junior at another school, has an older "dude" (not boyfriend) whom she seems less than enthusiastic about. The two talk and talk, and even dance a little, until the party is broken up by the cops and Dave offers to walk Aubrey home. By this point the perceptive young lad has started to sense some romantic possibility in the air, but is soon stiffly reminded by Aubrey that she has a boyfriend. Speaking of stiff, Aubrey nonetheless invites Dave upstairs and the two end up spooning on her bedroom carpet, supposedly platonically, but of course anything but. They sleep through to the next morning, he makes a wacky parents-avoiding escape out her window, and they're meant to continue on with their lives as normal.
Of course they don't, sorta purposefully running into each other at the movies the next day. She's with this "dude" of hers, a hulking-cute maybe 20-year-old played by Animal Kingdom's James Frecheville with, if not a perfect American accent, at least a surprising flair for the comedic. Dave is instantly not a fan of the guy, Aubrey seems weary of perky (in all manner, if you get my meaning) Jane, and the two spend the bulk of their time eying each other in the dark theater, trying to make sure the other isn't making time with their respective crush objects/significant others. They eventually wind up alone in the lobby together, where they have another one of their deep and meaningful chats. And if it wasn't clear to both of them before then, it now of course is: They're into each other and they belong together. There are a few more hurdles to jump over and then, boom, there they are, kissy-kissy, lovey-dovey.
Lots of teen romance movies stop there, but of course in this case we've still go that title to satisfy. This is a first time movie, after all, and the first time must be dealt with. This is where the movie takes a more interesting and certainly more believable turn. In the dimmest of ways it's almost like act two of Into the Woods: What happens after happily ever after? Well, what happens is that things don't go terribly smoothly and teen feelings are hurt and teen fears slightly confirmed and they must teenly figure out what it all means. Cue some Nick Drake-lite guitar strumming and a speech or two and things get good again, of course. Despite the predictable outcome, there is still a bit of flair in how the film's main tension hinges on intangibles instead of some stupid thing the guy did or a lie the girl told. This big moment just didn't go all that well, and it makes things weird. That's all. Just like real life. Sorta, anyway.
That Kasdan is a former Dawson's Creek writer will come across as no surprise to those who recognize a particular strain of faux-profundity in some of The First Time's writing. Nor will the fact that Kasdan's previous cinematic effort was the egregiously poorly realized In the Land of Women surprise anyone who finds something tinny about this film's plotting. But Kasdan has, to some extent, matured past both of those endeavors, enough so that The First Time has a few nice moments of thoughtfulness. In the movie theater scene, the banter takes a quiet pause to let Aubrey reflect on a trip she took to Madrid to visit her uncle and his boyfriend (appreciated subtle nod to the gays there); it's a pretty bit of writing that Robertson seems to connect with, like a drama major getting a juicy monologue to perform in class. O'Brien, ably moving out of his jokey Teen Wolf sidekick role and into the lead, is a somewhat bland but nonetheless appealing nice guy. Kasdan has written what plenty of parents would call a "good kid, good kid" — solid, attentive to his little half-sister, handsome but not threateningly so. The two have perfectly pleasant chemistry and when they finally do fall into each other it feels right, in a satisfying way.
Kasdan throws in some comedic stuff that doesn't necessarily need to be there, like Frecheville's character and Dave's two mismatched wingmen (one's a tiny, serious-talking English kid, the other is the huge Lamarcus Tinker from Glee), but mostly this is an almost disarmingly sincere movie. It's an earnest teen romance more than a comedy, which, in this era of jaded, "whatever, it's cool" Nick and Norah-style detachment feels like a noble, if a bit soppy, undertaking. Kasdan still has leagues to go before he's a filmmaker who doesn't seem so in love with his own fairly hollow words to the point that it's a detriment to all else, but I think he crosses some sort of threshold, pops some kind of cherry if you'll allow me that, in parts of this film. It's sweet if a bit cloying, clever if never inventive, and introspective while not exactly wise. Much like a teenager, I guess. The First Time is a sturdy enough little movie that offers glimmers of some promise from this filmmaker down the road. Forget In the Land of Women, Mr. Kasdan. But be sure to never forget your second.