A man in his thirties who has spent his adult life flat on his back in an iron lung and has never had a sexual experience decides to attempt intercourse with a paid therapist. But first the man, a devout Catholic, consults with his parish priest about the morality of it.
When we factor in that the disabled man in question, based on late Berkeley writer Mark O’Brien, is played by John Hawkes – the actor whose portrayals of a meth addict in Winter’s Bone and a sinister cult leader in Martha Marcy May Marlene sent chills down the spines of movie audiences – we have to assume that this film has all the makings of the biggest bummer of the season, or at best a well-meaning-but-maudlin item from the liberal-guilt file.
Instead, writer-director Ben Lewin’s The Sessions happens to be a funny, sexy, and unabashedly life-affirming character-study, a romantic drama that does all the right things with its touchy ingredients. The trick is in the casting: Hawkes, as polio survivor O’Brien, researching a book on disabled sex and also seriously curious; Helen Hunt, in the key role of a professional sexual surrogate named Cheryl with issues of her own; and William H. Macy as Mark’s spiritual counselor, Father Brendan. Thanks to Lewin’s bright dialogue, this acting trio lifts a potentially dismal social-problem vignette to rarefied heights. It’s a feel-gooder no one has to be ashamed to admit they enjoyed, sparkling with unexpected personality.
Paralyzed from the neck down, Mark nonetheless possesses the gift of gab. How else could he joke his way into the confidences of so many people whose main reaction to him otherwise would be pity and nothing more? Mark O’Brien comes across as one of the most charming movie characters in recent memory, alternating between self-deprecating wisecracks about his condition and lack of experience, and flat-out panic on the doorstep of doing the deed. He actually manages to restore a sense of mystery to the sex act. That alone qualifies as a triumph.
The expressions on Father Brendan’s face and his quizzical relationship with Mark are tempered with the unspoken understanding that their partnership is a variation on the blind leading the blind, two male virgins trying to make a moral case for satisfying carnal urges, for the solace of a restless soul. In all Macy’s fine work for playwright David Mamet on stage and screen, it’s unlikely that he has ever played a character on such a purely academic quest.
Then there’s Hunt’s Cheryl, without whom the tale makes no sense. Cheryl is different – neither a saint nor a whore with a heart of gold, but a woman willing to assume a persona, a sort of Freudian priestess of the temple of the body. Naturally, she’s conflicted when Mark wants the relationship to progress to the next stage. And just as naturally, she makes it known that her role is facilitator, not lover. As with the two men, Cheryl’s complicated personality assumes a larger role thanks to Lewin’s expansive writing.
Lewin never had talent like Hawkes, Hunt, and Macy as his instruments before, and he makes the best of them.
THE SESSIONS HHH •Directed by Ben Lewin. • Starring John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy. • Rated R. • 95 min. •At Osio Cinemas.