On paper, it sounds like a misguided collaboration between the Lifetime network and the Playboy Channel -- a 36-year-old paralytic who spends most of his time in an iron lung hires a sex surrogate to help him lose his virginity. Based on a true story, to boot.
Miraculously, “The Sessions” avoids the kind of squickyness that Hollywood usually drizzles over its uplifting movies about the physically challenged, mainly because its subject, poet and journalist Mark O’Brien, was in real life far too smart and self-deprecating for that kind of sentimental head-patting. (Just watch Jessica Yu’s extraordinary Oscar-winning short “Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien” for a sampling of the actual guy’s wit and forthrightness.)
In this fictionalized film, we see some news footage of O’Brien zipping through a college campus on a motorized gurney before we’re introduced to John Hawkes playing the writer. Assigned an article about “Sex and the Disabled,” O’Brien soon realizes he’s in way over his head, given that, for all his intellectual growth, he’s still a virgin. (A childhood polio sufferer, O’Brien was unable to move anything below his neck although, as we learn soon enough, he was more than capable of erections and orgasms.)
Along comes sex therapist and surrogate Cheryl (Helen Hunt) to teach Mark about his own body, not to mention the bodies of women; she makes it clear from the get-go that he is limited to no more than six sessions with her and that she has very strict boundaries regarding her private life. As you might expect, however, those boundaries start wobbling a bit, as the married Cheryl finds herself having feelings for Mark, even as she acknowledges that his crush on her is classic patient-therapist transference.
Since the movie’s not about Cheryl, and we don’t know how her sessions with Mark are different than the ones she’s had with previous clients, we have to take it on faith that Mark is so very special as to make this professional bend her own rules. It’s something of a leap, but Hawkes’ charismatic performance helps fill in the gaps of the screenplay by director Ben Lewin. (The Australia-based filmmaker was himself a childhood polio sufferer.)
Given the obvious physical challenges of the role, Hawkes creates a memorable performance whose subtle pleasures will no doubt be blown all out of proportion by awards-distributing bodies that admire quantifiable acting. Despite the trophy-attracting nature of the role, however, Hawkes admirably avoids showboating.
He’s got great chemistry with his co-stars, particularly Moon Bloodgood (dryly amusing as one of Mark’s caretakers) and Hunt. The Oscar-winning actress often reads peevish and irritated on the screen, as though she had been called into work on her day off. Her anti-charisma works in her favor here, giving the character a prickly base from which to blossom into this unlikely flirtation. (It may have helped that Hunt explored similar territory in 1992’s “The Waterdance,” another movie in which her character had a sexual relationship with a paraplegic.) Hunt deserves a lot of credit for tackling the necessary physicality of the role, particularly since so many actors, both male and female, insist on no-nudity contracts that protect their modesty but take audiences out of the movie.
Think about it: When you see a passionate love scene in which a woman leaves her bra on, or a naked actor walking through a room where there is always a lamp or a bouquet of flowers to hide his genitals, it removes you from the moment and reminds you that you’re watching actors acting. There’s nothing prurient about Hunt’s nudity here, and it keeps the sexual scenes organic and believable; hats off to her for caring more about the character and the movie than she does about the inevitable ubiquity of her breasts on the internet.
The power of Hawkes’ scenes with Hunt and Bloodgood is worth mentioning because where “The Sessions” goes awry is in the many instances in which Mark pours out his heart to parish priest Father Brendan (William H. Macy). It’s a clunky way to communicate Mark’s innermost feelings about his sexual education, and the whole “He’s talking to a priest! About sex!” gag gets tired pretty quickly.
Still, the rest of the movie works so effectively that it makes the many church-bound scenes worth enduring. Smart films about sex are as rare as intelligent cinematic explorations of the lives of the differently-abled, so for “The Sessions” to accomplish both so well makes it the movie equivalent of Halley’s Comet; take a good look, because it might be decades before we get another one.