At the age of 6, Mark O’Brien was ravaged by polio and paralyzed from the neck down. He retained sensation throughout his body — he could feel the touch of a hand and he could speak clearly — but he needed to be connected to an enormous iron lung to breathe. As an adult, Mark used a motorized gurney and a portable respirator (which allowed him to unplug and leave the house for a few hours at a time) to attend the University of California at Berkeley, where he majored in English literature. He wrote by pushing the keys of a typewriter with a stick in his mouth, and he eventually published several collections of poetry and freelanced as a journalist.
His remarkable story was already the subject of the Oscar-winning short documentary Breathing Lessons. But Ben Lewin, who wrote and directed The Sessions, focuses on one specific, critical chapter in Mark’s life — the time he lost his virginity (unlike most men with his condition, he had normal sexual response and function). That narrow focus distinguishes the movie from films such as My Left Foot and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and other stories about handicapped people overcoming impossible odds to create art or simply survive. Mark, played as a wry, chatty 38-year-old by John Hawkes, just wants to get laid.
First, though, he must get the permission of his priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy). Mark is a devout Catholic: “I would find it absolutely intolerable not to be able to blame someone for all this,” he says about his belief in God. His request for sex outside marriage puts the priest in a bind, but he decides to go with the flow (“In my heart I believe He will give you a free pass on this one,” he tells Mark). The only question now is finding a willing partner.
She turns out to be Cheryl (Helen Hunt), a married woman and mother who works as a sexual surrogate, helping the disabled and the mentally challenged to explore their sexuality. Unlike a prostitute, she helps her clients prepare mentally as well as physically for the act, and her ironclad rule is that she’ll only see clients for six sessions, never more than that, to prevent them from falling in love with her.
As the movie’s title implies, the heart of The Sessions are the scenes between Mark and Cheryl, which are uncommonly frank (for an American R-rated movie) about sex and nudity, and lay out the mechanics of Cheryl's work in precise detail. But the scenes are fascinating primarily for what transpires inside the characters’ heads — how Mark overcomes his understandable shyness and self-consciousness and how Cheryl, stuck in an unsatisfying marriage, is able to look past her client’s disabilities and draw inspiration from the intelligent, brave, funny man inside.
Hawkes, who has earned much acclaim for playing creeps and cretins recently (Winter’s Bone, Martha Marcy May Marlene) achieves the seemingly impossible here, capturing the depth and soul of a thoughtful, charming poet using only his face. This is the kind of Oscar-bait role actors seek out for its degree of difficulty, but Hawkes’ portrayal is one from the heart, devoid of any stunts or flourishes. Hunt is even better as a woman who has no problem taking off her clothes for strangers, but can’t have a single honest conversation with the husband who takes her for granted. Hawkes’ performance is the must-see hook of The Sessions, but Hunt gives this funny, touching movie its soul, and the actors elevate the material into something more resonant and memorable than the story promises.
Cast: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy, Moon Bloodgood.
Writer-director: Ben Lewin.
Producers: Judy Levine, Ben Lewin, Stephen Nemeth.
A Fox Searchlight Pictures release. Running time: 95 minutes. Vulgar language, nudity, explicit sex, adult themes. Plays at 5:30 p.m. Nov. 3 at Muvico Pompano as part of the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival