In The Sessions, polio survivor Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) cuts through awkwardness with humor, using warm cracks to shift focus away from his neck-down immobility, and to endear himself to just about everyone. He may be confined to an iron lung all day, save a few hours, but he’s still done a bang-up job of perfecting his social game. “Do you believe in God?” one character asks. “I have to,” Mark quips. “I would find it absolutely intolerable not to have someone to blame for all this.” Mark’s graceful empathy makes him well suited for impromptu chats, but when it comes to women, his charms haven’t exactly sparked romance. His self-protecting female assistants come and go (with at least one spooked by his impulsive reveal of a crush), and what’s more, no woman’s ever ensured Mark’s carnal ascent to manhood. Written and directed by Ben Lewin, himself a disabled polio survivor, The Sessions has greater goals than being the 40-Year-Old Virgin for the art house. It’s a deeply humane dramedy about sex and good spirits, and like Mark, it makes careful use of levity as, if you will, an entry point.
The real Mark O’Brien got people talking in 1990, when his article “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate” was published in The Sun. A freelance journalist, Mark took an assignment covering sex and the disabled, and in the process, faced his desire to finally, at 38, lose his virginity. The Sessions sees Mark first consult the modest Father Brendan (William H. Macy), a priest who decides that God will give Mark “a pass,” since sex outside wedlock seems to be his only option (“I’m reaching my best-if-used-by date,” Mark presses in earnest). Religion is both ally and farce in this frank and funny movie, which follows the doctrine that one’s own body is the most important temple. At the suggestion of a therapist, Mark nervously enlists the aid of Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt), a Berkeley sex surrogate who’s as quick to speak plainly as she is to remove her clothes. She chats about “body-awareness exercises,” and through her, the film reveals itself as an all-inclusive hymn to human vessels, whatever their state. A business-minded woman with an emotion-fraught profession, Cheryl keeps her cool even when alarmed by the extent of Mark’s condition. But the partnership wears her down, and when she, too, confronts religious counsel, bathing nude during a reluctant conversion to Judaism, it seems she’s fully regarding her body for the first time, rocked by the juxtaposition of Mark’s experience in his skin.
The nudity in The Sessions may be jarring to some, as Hunt has never gone full frontal before, but her feat is that she seizes the role’s bare-all nature, offering the same comforting openness she always has on screen. The titular appointments unroll with the gradual base-hitting of adolescent dates, and Cheryl plays gentle guide throughout, scanning Mark’s biology while inching toward a home run. Unlike, say, Ed Zwick’s Love & Other Drugs, The Sessions never exhibits the slightest hint of tastelessness, nor is it at all the sort of project whose skin-baring might yield actorly regrets. Beautifully honest and almost totally adult (Father Brendan’s check-ins do border on the puerile), it’s the rare film to sell sex as something truly tender and life-affirming, and Hunt, in particular, is lovely and poignant. The standout in a film with many thoughtful roles for women (Moon Bloodgood and Robin Weigert also star as Mark’s caretaker and eventual wife, respectively), Hunt reprises a quality she wore so well in As Good As It Gets, standing as the greatest women on Earth for a misunderstood pariah. The love that grows between Cheryl and Mark is a bit of star-crossed magic, and it’s much thanks to Hunt’s uniformly naked work.
Hawkes, meanwhile, follows two dark turns in Winter’s Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene with a star vehicle that brings out his benevolence. Embodying a character who spends his life on his back, Hawkes must shape a full performance from dialogue and shifts of the head, and his approach is one that’s appropriately subtle. Mark’s comic doorway to conversation is also Hawkes’s entrance into the man’s personality, but ultimately, it’s not the gags that make the character unforgettable. Rather than mirroring Mark’s habit of premature climax (a problem unfortunately shared by the film itself), Hawkes shrewdly navigates the growing intimacy of his scenes, and lets the character’s humanness slowly evolve. By the time Cheryl has surely made a man out of Mark, Hawkes has given life to someone full and rich, who’s reached a point of completion, where soul meets body.