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Capone's Art-House Round-Up with John Hawkes & Helen Hunt in THE SESSIONS and Ira Sachs' KEEP THE LIGHTS ON!!!

Hey, folks. Capone in Chicago here, with a few films that are making their way into art houses or coming out in limited release around America this week (maybe even taking up one whole screen at a multiplex near you). Do your part to support these films, or at least the good ones…

There's a real reason that the latest film from writer-director Ben Lewin (GEORGIA, PAPERBACK ROMANCE) won the Audience Award for drama (as well as a Special Jury Prize for ensemble acting in a drama) at this year's Sundance Film Festival. The film is a soaring testimony to humanity at its very basic, raw core. Yes, this true story features as its lead characters a physically disabled, 38-year-old man (John Hawkes playing journalist and poet Mark O'Brien) locked in an iron lung for most of his life and an often fully nude, able-bodied woman (Helen Hunt as Cheryl) sex surrogate hired to help Mark lose his virginity before he dies, but THE SESSIONS covers so much ground in its 90-minute-plus running time, it's difficult to believe just how beautifully efficient and perfectly realized the work is.

On top of being a gifted writer (his article on his experience with a sex surrogate served as the inspiration for Lewin's screenplay), O'Brien was a deeply religious man whose shame over his polio-twisted form was the result of both Catholic guilt and simply never being introduced to his body as a source of giving or receiving pleasure. Before he hires the surrogate, he consults with a priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy), whose discomfort with O'Brien's condition is clear but he manages to get past it and give his blessing to the normally sinful act of sex outside of marriage for Mark. But as the film goes on, Mark returns to the priest with regular updates on the process, complete with graphic details of his encounters with Cheryl. Macy's priceless reactions cover a vast range of fascinations, but often he just sits and allows himself to get wrapped up in what becomes an almost-romantic tale.

There's nothing precious or overly sentimental about the way Lewin lays out O'Brien's journey. He's a man who falls in love easily because he meets so few women outside of his caretakers. In fact, the film opens with a near-miss relationship with Amanda (Annika Marks), who is clearly falling for the funny and charming Mark, but she just quite get past the physical limitations such a relationship would have. He eventually finds Vera (Moon Bloodgood), a new caretaker who is both a bit more clinical and impressively supportive of his sex therapy sessions.

So what about these sessions? I have to confess, they were fascinating even before the clothes came off. Hunt is absolutely convincing as a person who introduces body awareness to this man who can't even see most of his body. But the actual sex acts, which she must build up to since O'Brien has a tendency to finish before he's begun, are both wonderfully awkward and completely traumatizing. But listening to her describe the process of figuring out what Mark likes and doesn't like, what he wants to explore and what doesn't work for him goes beyond intimate and is endlessly fascinating. She's the definition of patience and nurturing, and the delicacy with which she performs her job is inspiring. Plenty of people—disabled or not—could learn a lot from her.

Clearly, Hawkes (WINTER'S BONE, MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE) is doing the heavy lifting here, but it's far from a showy performance. He brings a great deal of humor and charm to O'Brien, but he also plays up his emotional flaws, weaknesses and occasional biting wit. He fully admits that part of the reason he's engaging the surrogate is because he thinks his "use-by date" is almost up, so there's a bittersweet quality to the whole proceeding. Still, a final-act appearance by Robin Weigert as his eventual girlfriend Susan is pure enjoyment for him (and us), since Mark now has the mental and physical tools to better handle a relationship. Cheryl introduces this new confidence into his life, and all concerned are eternally grateful.

Director Lewin isn't afraid to let things get mildly explicit—in words and deeds—but things are handled tastefully, and before long, Hunt's nudity becomes a natural part of the nurturing scenery. Above all else, THE SESSIONS gives one a sense of pure, unfiltered uplift. The performances are flawless, and the flow of the screenplay makes the whole process of O'Brien's life and Cheryl's work seem like they were destined to find each other somehow. The film is a pseudo-love story whose conclusion enlightens both participants even as their relationship comes to its natural conclusion. This is a magnificent little movie that you won't help but fall in love with.

One of the more hauntingly compelling works I've seen on the dramatic front lately is director/co-writer Ira Sachs' KEEP THE LIGHTS ON, which focuses on the rocky journey of an on-again/off-again gay couple in New York City that begins in 1997 and continues for nearly 10 years. At its heart, the film is like many other honest looks at troubled romantic entanglements—they have their good and bad days; their nights filled with passion, drugs and drinking; and when they attempt to define the boundaries of their relationship, things begin to solidify as much as they fall apart. It's a painful, emotionally fueled film from Sachs (FORTY SHAKES OF BLUE, MARRIED LIFE).

What keeps us interested are the fascinating characters, especially Danish actor Thure Lindhardt (INTO THE WILD, ANGELS & DEMONS, and the upcoming EDDIE: THE SLEEPWALKING CANNIBAL) in his U.S. debut as a leading man, playing Erik, a documentary filmmaker who excels at spending hours on phone sex lines and hooking up for one-night stands. One of these nights is spent with a closeted lawyer named Paul (Zachary Booth), but it doesn't take long for the connection to form or for Erik to become troubled by Paul's drug addiction. In fact, Paul seems to need to be whacked out of his mind to even have sex with Erik, and before long it becomes a source of constant conflict between the two.

Sachs and co-writer Mauricio Zacharias have pieced together a series of exceedingly believable moments between this couple that beautifully capture the arc that every relationship must go through to either survive or be made clear that it was not meant to last. The issues may be different from couple to couple, but the patterns are mostly the same. KEEP THE LIGHTS ON is held together by deeply unsettling original music by Arthur Russell, who sings sometimes incoherently underneath some of the sadder moments of the film as if to highlight the pain in searing red; it's gorgeous material.

If you've never seen Lindhardt's work before, you owe it to yourself to check him out. My guess is that you'll want to find others works he's acted in prior to this; he's a gifted and versatile performer you'll probably be seeing much more of in the States in years to come. KEEP THE LIGHTS ON is intense, realistic drama that always opts to be just a little more realistic. The love is genuine, and the fighting is severe and difficult to watch, which of course means you can't take your eyes off of it. The movie is a jarring experience that ebbs and flows with an organic rhythm that sounds a lot like the human heart.

-- Steve Prokopy
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