Welcome to Thursday Trailer Face-Off, a feature in which we cast a critical eye on two similar upcoming film releases, pitting them against each other across a variety of categories to determine which is most deserving of your two hours. This week: The Sessions and Hello I Must Be Going, two indie comedies about middle-aged, sarcastic adults trying to reclaim their sexuality, with mixed results.
The Sessions chronicles the efforts of paralyzed polio survivor Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes) to lose his virginity with the help of a so-called "sex surrogate" (Helen Hunt). If that sounds like a cheap riff on The 40-Year-Old Virgin, the resemblance is only topical, as this story promises more emotional intrigue than sexual slapstick. Even O'Brien's priest (William H. Macy) and therapist (Moon Bloodgood) get their moment under the relationship microscope in this trailer, which makes us think that Hawkes's bed-bound performance won't be reduced to a gimmick, and might actually make some sort of super-insightful analogy about the romantic frustrations that everybody faces. But at the very least, it looks pretty funny. Hello I Must Be Going finds a downtrodden divorcée named Amy (Melanie Lynskey) staying indefinitely at her parents' home in the suburbs. After agreeing to show neighbor-boy Jeremy (Christopher Abbott) around town, the two embark on a taboo love affair. This storyline may sound like it's been done before, too, and it definitely has, but it's not quite your run-of-the-mill Mrs. Robinson remake. Hello, like The Sessions, introduces a whole lot of complicated emotions to a very popular sexual trope.
Hawkes's character in The Sessions is endearingly self-conscious. There are a few one-liners in there (see "My penis speaks to me, Father Brendan") that make him immediately likeable. But his reserved, self-deprecating wit makes him a hard book to read, and we just don't feel as close to him as we do to Lynskey's emotionally naked character. Maybe it's that she spends a lot more time alone, but we're privy to her every intimate anxiety and excitement. We can't say one is a better actor than the other, but Lynskey's role gives her a lot more material for a memorable performance. That cringe-worthy "mom" scene at the very end confirms that she's totally committed to it.
Advantage: Hello I Must Be Going
But about that scene—it's one of the only really good laughs in the trailer. There are a few others, to be sure, like her blind date's top-10 food listings, or her mother's passive-aggressive confusion over the difference between her "staying" and "living" with her parents. But a good part of the humor comes (or is supposed to come) from Lynskey's awkward physical blunders—her choking at the dinner table, her uncontrollable laughing, her uncomfortable squat on a beanbag chair, and her falling face-forward on a pebbly beach. It all feels lacking for an otherwise nuanced performance. The Sessions, which could have easily relied very heavily on slapstick, relies on a different source of awkwardness for its comedy: blunt, uncomfortable honesty. In moments as simple as Hawkes's earnest and eager "yes" in response to his surrogate's invitation to undress, the film's restraint makes its funniest moments all the more entertaining.
Advantage: The Sessions
Both protagonists find themselves in unconventional relationships, to say the least. We're not 100% clear on the ethics and oaths involved in sex therapy, but emotional attachment seems like a no-no. And Lynskey's affair with a barely-legal neighborhood kid is another major (albeit popularized) taboo. But beneath all the social stigma, both romances are also pretty convincing. Hawkes's playful personality makes for a sweet counter to Hunt's self-serious airs, and the affection he comes to show for her seems genuine, if a little over-the-top. Same goes for Hello, in which the romance can feel sappy, but earnestly so. In Hello, though, we can't quite see where all those feelings came from in the first place—or at least, not as well as we can in the more believable progression of The Sessions. We realize this is just the trailer, but from where we stand, Lynskey picked the kid up one night and they drove straight to her bedroom.
Advantage: The Sessions
We weren't sure where we'd land on this one—we're major suckers for the rare well-done rom-com, and both of these fit the bill. Still, any film that can make a relationship between a sex therapist and her paying client seem more romantic than a summertime fling in suburbia deserves the win.
Winner: The Sessions
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