How's it going, girls? Long time no see (since The Waterdance twenty years go, to be exact). To tell the truth, I thought our relationship was over. Not even the cow-flinging winds of an F-5 Twister were enough to bring you back to me (even as I hoped against hope with each repeated VHS viewing). Then you won an Oscar with that wet T-shirt, and I figured, well, this is As Good As it Gets. You had matured and moved on and I managed, with great difficulty, to forget you.
Now, in The Sessions, you've come out of retirement guns-a-blazin' with a performance that features Natasha Henstridge-levels of exposure. But you've done so for a wonderful film that revels in the 90s (like me) and is the perfect vehicle to make your big comeback.
Writer and Director Ben Lewin's film is based on the true story of a man named Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes) who lives with an iron lung and is functionally paralyzed. His story was the subject of Breathing Lessons, the 1996 film by Jessica Yu that won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short. The Sessions, however, makes the brave decision to focus only on the most titillating aspects of Mark's life. At age 38, he solicits the blessing of his priest (William H. Macy) to hire the de-virgining services of a sex surrogate. This is where you come in. Both of you.
Mark - and the movie - have sex on the brain. But the story rises well above lusty fantasies. The best parts are tender, touching, and revealing--and I'm not just talking about you.
The film opens with a mix of archival news footage and Mark's own poetry, which remarks upon his struggles, triumphs, and ambitions. But more than wanting to become a journalist, Mark longs for simple pleasures, like having someone wash his hairy nipples without suffering though an attendant's sadistic "you-need-me-more-than-I-need-you" look. He longs for a gentle companion. Frankly, he longs for you.
When Mark is hired to write a research paper on sex for the disabled, we get a montage that educates us about the pleasures of nipple licking, unorthodox sex positions, and how weed helps numb nerves in your mouth to perform better cunnilingus. There's a lot early on to make you blush, but watching Mark squirm through these details (while his priest puts on a brave face) endears us to him all the more. Never more than when Mark explains how his penis speaks to him, but mainly through involuntary ejaculations as he's being bathed.
Helen Hunt is the polar opposite: controlled, calm, and commanding. She exposes you early and often as she performs body awareness exercises with Mark. To his delight, she guides the back of his hand through breast etiquette: "If you touch one, you have to touch the other. It's sort of a rule." Lessons of this type are apparently what separate sex surrogates from prostitutes, although the film doesn't split hairs. Besides being more introspective about her work (your work, really), she institutes a strict limit on the number of encounters, which becomes the film's inherit drama. She's less worried about overstaying her welcome than about "emotional transference". Basically, building elaborate long-term fantasies about her (I wouldn't know anything about that).
You've done a great job, you two. I appreciate your bold decision to appear at this relatively late age, and I understand if we can never see each other again. Those are the rules, after all. But it was pretty great to break them—just this once.