Helen Hunt and John Hawkes in "The Sessions"
Let's talk about sex, says "The Sessions." This independent comedy-drama -- adapted by writer-director Ben Lewin from Mark O'Brien's non-fiction essay "On Seeing a Sex Surrogate" -- gets it right, in the essence of its true story as well as the social discomforts surrounding disability and sane discussion of sexuality.
U.C. Berkeley grad O'Brien (played in the film by the extraordinary John Hawkes) begins the film as a 38-year-old virgin. As in "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," this is a recipe for gentle comedy edged with melancholy, but the hero of "The Sessions" seemingly has greater cause for despair, since he spends most of his waking hours at home in an iron lung (the result of childhood polio).
A poet and writer blessed and cursed with curiosity, Mark researches a piece on the sexual activity of disabled folks and, in the process, shames himself into action. His innocent, abrupt declarations of love have thus far been unreciprocated, so Mark considers getting professional help, which leads him to sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt).
Cheryl doesn't stand on ceremony, though there's a practiced demeanor in her friendly professionalism, a wise caution meant to forestall "typical transference behavior" as she coaches her client through "body awareness exercises" and sexual acts with her. She sets a limit of six sessions: enough to give Mark sexual experience and confidence, but not enough to get in too deep, emotionally speaking. After all, Cheryl has a husband (Adam Arkin) at home.
All the while, Mark confides in local Catholic priest Father Brendan (William H. Macy), from whom Mark hopes he will get humane extra-papal permission for his sexual odyssey. These scenes at times take "The Sessions" into jokey territory, but they also underline the real Mark's need for affirmation and his faith ("I'm definitely a true believer," he explains, "but I believe in a God with a sense of humor.").
"The Sessions" finds firm ground in its exquisitely naturalistic sex scenes that provide a twist on the usual patient-therapist relationship (giving new meaning to "bedside manner") while also exploring male-female friendship and a kind of spiritual love that, while easily confused with romance -- and not only by the sheltered Mark -- transcends it (also, three cheers for approaching sex in a realistic and literally shameless manner).
With the benefit of Jessica Yu's Oscar-winning short doc "Breathing Lessons" as a resource, Hawkes crawls into O'Brien's skin, changing the timbre of his voice and painfully contorting his body but more importantly feeling each emotional ache; going toe to toe, Hunt subtly teases out her every emotional reaction to Mark's naked soulfulness. Speaking of naked, "The Sessions" finds both leads frequently in the buff, upping the frankness ante from the sexual therapy in this summer's "Hope Springs."
As with that film, this one will meet many people where they live, disabled or otherwise. In a way, "The Sessions" fits the bill of a conventionally inspirational Hollywood picture about a disabled person overcoming adversity, but the film's Mark (and the real one) would no doubt reject such reduction. It's the story of a man, one who feels he doesn't deserve love and will never get it, but discovers he's wrong. You don't need an iron lung to make that story inspirational ... but it helps.
Rated R for strong sexuality including graphic nudity and frank dialogue. 1 hour, 35 minutes.
- Peter Canavese