Susan Granger’s review of “The Sessions” (Fox Searchlight Pictures)
Paralyzed by polio, Berkeley, California-based journalist and poet Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) spends most of his life confined in an iron lung. But when he’s assigned to do an article on sex and the disabled, he realizes that – at age 38 – it’s time to lose his virginity. But how?
Mark’s first thought is to consult his new parish priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy), who decides that, in this particular instance, Jesus would probably give Mark a “pass” for sex without wedlock. At the suggestion of a therapist, Mark then enlists the services of a certified sex surrogate, Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt), who assures them they’ll begin with “body awareness exercises.” Although Mark’s muscles have atrophied, he can feel the sensation of touch on all parts of his body. Cheryl explains that the difference between her work and that of a prostitute is that, while the latter wants return business, she will only commit to six sessions. Given that understanding, their friendship blossoms and grows into true intimacy.
Although he’s immobile, Mark is blessed with a perceptive mind and a wickedly self-deprecating sense of humor. When he’s asked if he believes in God, he answers in the affirmative, explaining, “I would find it absolutely intolerable not to have someone to blame for all this.”
Based on O’Brien’s article, “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate,” published in “The Sun,” the inspiring, touchingly optimistic script was written and directed by Ben Lewin, a 66 year-old polio survivor who walks using braces. Despite full frontal nudity, there’s no obscenity. What’s astonishing are the perceptive performances. Back from her self-imposed screen hiatus, Helen Hunt (Oscar-winner for “As Good As It Gets”) exudes unwavering integrity. John Hawkes (Oscar-nominated for “Winter’s Bone”) never falters or rings false, while William H. Macy exudes kindness and humanity. Adam Arkin, Moon Bloodgood and Robin Weigart deliver memorable support.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Sessions” is a compassionate 7. Rated R, it’s an adult film that approaches the serious subject of sex with refreshingly explicit honesty.