MOVIE REVIEW: ‘The Sessions’

Ben Lewin film makes use of humor, pathos

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Of all the movies ever made about a man’s quest to lose his virginity, “The Sessions” may be the oddest and the sweetest. It is based on a personal essay by Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes), a poet and journalist who suffered from near total paralysis as the result of childhood polio. His libido, however, was not paralyzed, and at age 38, Mr. O'Brien belatedly set out to have a sexual experience.

Finding a girlfriend is not so simple for Mark, who spends his life lying flat on a gurney. But as a church-going Catholic, he doesn’t consider paying for sex, at least not in the way it is commonly understood. An article he writes about sex among the disabled leads him to meet Cheryl (Helen Hunt), a kind of therapist who takes a hands-on approach to human sexuality as a “sex surrogate.” Her job is to have sex with her clients, but her treatment maxes out at six sessions.

Mark’s meetings with Cheryl make up the core of the movie. They are, by turns, awkward, sweet, comic and compelling. The movie is driven by Mark’s sense of humor. When he seeks a sort of dispensation from his parish priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy), he worries that “I’m probably getting close to my use-by date.” When he tries to find a place to meet with Cheryl, he explains, “The only bedroom furnishing I have at my place is an iron lung.”

Structurally, “The Sessions” breaks a lot of rules. There’s no second act full of obstacles, followed by a final triumph. Instead, the movie brazenly shows Mark on a path of determined, and well-deserved, uplift that is derailed only slightly when he develops a crush on Cheryl. It’s a credit to the edgy humor of the movie, and the great performances that “The Sessions” doesn’t come off as corny or exploitative.

Miss Hunt is oddly terse and professional as Cheryl, even as she’s stripping down and slipping into bed next to her client. She also finds herself unexpectedly drawn to Mark, perhaps more inspired by his moral courage and perseverance than his sexual technique. Moon Bloodgood is very droll as Vera, a home care worker who tends to Mark during the day. Adam Arkin does a good job of exploring the limits of tight-lipped tolerance as Cheryl’s husband.

Mr. Hawkes, known for playing subtle, nuanced characters like Sol on the HBO Western series “Deadwood” and Teardrop, the meth addict in “Winter’s Bone,” turns in a bravura performance as the sardonic and self-aware Mark. In “The Sessions,” Mr. Hawkes does a lot with Mark’s voice, an insistent mid-New England drawl with a nasal twang that can shift from solicitude to petulance in a heartbeat. He plays Mark as a creature of disquiet. Despite his paralysis, Mark’s head, eyes and mouth are nearly always in motion, and his polio-wracked body seems to vibrate from the activity. It will not be a surprise to see Mr. Hawkes among the candidates for best actor when the Academy Awards are announced.

★★★

TITLE: “The Sessions”

CREDITS: Written and Directed by Ben Lewin

RUNNING TIME: 95 minutes

RATING: R for nudity and sexual content

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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