The Academy Awards typically recognize actors who take a risk, put themselves out on a limb or otherwise take on bold, physical challenges. Big speeches are good, but unexpected transformations are even better (Robert De Niro in Raging Bull, John Hurt in The Elephant Man, Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot, Tom Hanks in Cast Away, Charlize Theron in Monster). Given this, The Sessions may have a lock on a couple of Oscars come February.
John Hawkes and Helen Hunt are front-and-center in this based-on-a-true story tale of a severely handicapped man and the professional sex surrogate who kinda loves him. Yup, that makes for one mighty uncomfortable tagline, but The Sessions rises quickly above both the giggling and the embarrassment, disarming viewers with a bold sense of honesty and a bright sense of humor.
Hawkes—so scary-good as the meth-dealing uncle in Winter’s Bone—plays Mark O’Brien, a real-life poet and journalist who has spent much of his life confined to an iron lung. Mark isn’t a true quadriplegic. A victim of childhood polio, he’s still got feelings below the neck, but no actual control over the muscles in his limbs. He’s still a virgin in his early 40s, but when a magazine asks him to write an article about sex and the handicapped, he’s intrigued. And a little intimidated. Talking to various sex-positive folks in wheelchairs, though, he starts to sense something’s missing in his life.
Being a devoted Roman Catholic, he seeks advice on premarital whoopee from his neighborhood priest (William H. Macy). A bit shocked but trying to be cool about it, the open-minded Father Brendan decides, “I think God will give you a pass on this one.” And so Mark calls up Cheryl (Helen Hunt—all but absent from the acting scene since her ’90s heyday of “Mad About You,” Twister and As Good As It Gets). Cheryl is a calm, helpful (and married) professional whose job it is to show differently abled people how to have intercourse. She takes what could be called a very hands-on approach.
This would have been a delicate story to pull off even with a finely tuned script and a sympathetic director—both of which miraculously materialize in the form of little-known filmmaker Ben Lewin, who gave us the 1991 obscurity The Favor, The Watch and the Very Big Fish. What this story needs is two very brave actors. Hawkes commits himself to his role, losing so much weight and contorting his body so drastically, he could easily be mistaken for DJ Qualls (Road Trip). And Hunt? Well, she just goes for it. The 49-year-old is playing a sex therapist and is required to be quite, quite naked for most of the film. She does it in the most blunt, “it’s all out there” manner as possible. Who knew the light comedy actress had it in her?
The Sessions isn’t exactly a sexy movie. But it is an unabashedly sexual one. By not sensationalizing a thing, the folks behind and in front of the camera have created an astonishingly clear-eyed picture of intimacy, tenderness, physical contact and emotional connection. It is, to put it simply, a very grown-up film.
Shocking as the sex might be (and, compared to your average erotic thriller, it isn’t really), the film’s tone is even more likely to catch people off guard. Obviously, all the elements are in place for a dark, dramatic, My Left Foot kind of tearjerker. I guarantee you will get severely verklempt by the film’s end. But mostly you’ll be struck by the genial humor of it all. Our man Mark is a witty, charming, highly educated fellow—a dynamic soul in a dormant body. The philosophical conversations he has with Father Brendan—who seems unprepared for this kind of carnal talk, but gamely steps up to the plate—are a source of much amusement. It might have been nice to dig a little deeper, to get at the root of Mark’s religious devotion, but the film is content to merely take it as a given.
There is, above all, a simplicity of purpose to The Sessions. It covers the six sex therapy sessions between Mark and Cheryl (hence, the title), a corresponding number of theological debates between Mark and his priest and just enough of Mark and Cheryl’s home lives to round out the characters. It doesn’t reach beyond the intimate, which is probably for the best. This is, if nothing else, an intimate story, and it will certainly make you grateful for the many pleasures life affords—be they out in the world or under the sheets.