All genres have their trademarks. In romantic comedies, the two meet, fall in love, break up, and then wind up together. In action movies, a lot of ass is kicked, then more ass is kicked, and then at the end, a hell of a lot of ass is kicked. That predictability isn't always a bad thing—after all, we go to certain movies in part because we know what we're going to get. But after a while you can feel like you're watching a cold, unfeeling machine going through the motions, and then you can't get invested in what's happening on the screen.
The Sessions, which stars John Hawkes as writer and poet Mark O'Brien, who lived in an iron lung until his death in 1999 at the age of 49, falls into a few loosely connected genres, all of which people tend to view with a certain amount of suspicion. The movie is based on a true story. It's an inspirational tale. It features a lot of therapy sessions where the main character grows and changes. And it concerns a severely disabled main character. If you're being polite, you'd simply call The Sessions a character drama. In the heat of the Academy Awards race, industry observers will think of The Sessions as a disease-of-the-week flick or feel-good Oscar-bait. So it's hard not to be cynical about this movie, which is meant to move you—and succeeds—but does it in a way that many other films have done before. How can a film this pure of intention and genuine in its emotions escape the familiarity of the genre it's stuck in? How does a feel-good movie not feel like "a feel-good movie"?
The film opens with news footage of the real O'Brien, who wasn't fully paralyzed but couldn't work the muscles below his neck. Stricken with polio as a boy, he spent his life on a gurney, permanently looking at life from a horizontal angle and his head crooked to the right. He spoke with an odd cadence and possessed a sarcastic streak, and despite his disabilities was a working journalist and writer. This brief introduction of the real O'Brien is important so that when we later see Hawkes in the role, we accept that it's a fairly accurate representation of how O'Brien looked and sounded—and then we move on, not spending a lot of time belaboring the "craft" of Hawkes's performance, which can be a trap in movies about characters with disabilities. (Too often, we praise the actor for his or her "courage" in playing someone with a serious condition, as if pretending to be disabled is somehow riskier—or nobler—than other types of performances.)
After falling in love with one of his aides—who doesn't share his feelings—O'Brien, who's in his late 30s, becomes interested in losing his virginity. He's able to have erections, but his inability to move would make sex difficult, though not impossible. Gingerly, he solicits the help of Cheryl (Helen Hunt), a professional sex surrogate who will have intercourse with him over the span of six sessions but, more importantly, work with him to make him feel more confident about his body.
In its broad strokes, The Sessions might sound like it was dreamed up by conniving producers who wanted to replicate the Oscar success of The King's Speech. (Instead of a stutter, it's polio. Instead of a speech therapist, it's Hunt naked in bed with Hawkes.) But Mark O'Brien was a living person who was loved by those around him. (His life was already the basis for an Oscar-winning short documentary.) The film doesn't always seem to know this: Writer-director Ben Lewin provides great depth of feeling but sometimes reduces O'Brien's journey to the overly familiar tale of two dissimilar souls achieving a beautiful but unexpected connection. (It doesn't help that Lewin's attempts to inject some levity with the supporting characters—including William H. Macy and Moon Bloodgood—can occasionally come off as flat or sitcom-y.)
But even if The Sessions can be a little pat, it's nonetheless an immensely affecting film in a very quiet way. For all its disease-of-the-week trappings, this movie isn't really about the usual feel-good clichés about the triumph of the human spirit. Instead, it's about sex—and, more specifically, the terror of intimacy.
It's been a good year for movies that deal frankly with sex. In Hope Springs, the reality of romance and marriage was explored with a refreshing amount of honesty, and now with The Sessions, we again get a no-nonsense therapist who talks to her client like an adult, eschewing the "Oh, heavens me!" silliness that the discussion of sex usually inspires in films. But unlike Steve Carell working with Tommy Lee Jones and Meryl Streep, Cheryl's sessions with Mark are incredibly intimate. (She takes her clothes off at the very beginning of their first session and keeps them off for much of the rest of their time together.) Nonchalant conversations that mention erections, vulvae, premature ejaculation and oral sex are the norm during their meetings, and they do have sex. But all that frankness works to demystify sex (both for Mark and the audience) so that the really challenging work—making Mark feel confident as a sexual being—can begin.
Whether it's Hunt's nudity or Hawkes' role as a disabled man, the actors strip away the actorly degree-of-difficulty clichés to get to the heart of their characters' story, which is about how people from very different walks of life end up with the same regrets and needs. Warm but tough, Cheryl sees in Mark's sheltered sweetness an optimism that's missing from her drab home life with her complacent husband. Funny but fragile (both physically and emotionally), Mark can't resist the predictable urge to fall in love with his therapist who, because there's no chance for a future between them, doesn't exactly reject his boyish advances.
Eventually, as you might expect, a pseudo-romantic bond begins to form between them, but The Sessions is careful not to specify precisely what their "relationship" is. In this way, the movie works against the usual feel-good, Oscar-bait principles: It allows the messiness of real life to keep everything from being neat and tidy. (The Sessions has a sort of happy ending, but it's not necessarily the one you'd expect—nor is it "happy" in a clear-cut way.) When you come right down to it, all movies are "predictable" or "conventional" in one way or another. What makes a movie resonate is how the filmmakers bring feeling or originality to their story. If The Sessions is doomed to be labeled a disease-of-the-week flick, at least it sees its characters with nuance, allowing them to be people who just so happen to inhabit a world you think you know from other films.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.