Not to be pigeonholed as a stock triumph-over-adversity true tale, "The Sessions" is an uncommon look at one polio-stricken man's quest, and how that experience changes not only his life but those around him. Mark O'Brien, 38, must be in an iron lung for sometimes up to 20 hours a day. That doesn't prevent him from pursuing his dreams. With a poet's soul and a journalist's curiosity, O'Brien writes. Assigned an article about disabled people's sex life, he decides that losing his virginity must be crossed off his bucket list. A devout Catholic, he asks his parish priest Father Brendan (William H. Macy) for guidance and permission. A therapist, Cheryl (Helen Hunt), is appointed as his sex surrogate for six sessions.
Thus begins an honest, challenging, and ultimately life-affirming exploration into human relationships. With exceptional sensitivity and warmth, writer-director Ben Lewin, a polio survivor, delves into O'Brien's difficult journey, forging an emotional connection with us.
This might sound off-putting, but it is surprisingly endearing, with two of the year's best performances. Previously titled "The Surrogate," it won the Audience Award (Dramatic) at Sundance and a Special Jury Prize for its extraordinary ensemble acting.
If you aren't affected by this film, you must have a heart of stone, for it is truly one of the year's best.
His body contorted and on a gurney most of the film, John Hawkes ("Winter Bone") must use his facial expressions and voice to convey O'Brien's feelings, and his work is astonishing. He makes you care immediately about this charming, smart, funny guy and shows us his vulnerability, anxiety and lifetime of pain without a speck of self-pity. His performance will be on the shortlist for awards at year's end, as will Helen Hunt ("As Good As It Gets") as the sex surrogate. She imbues this delicate interaction with a gentleness and compassion that's incredibly poignant.
William H. Macy, an enormously likable character actor, avoids cliches as the devoted clergy who develops a special bond with O'Brien.
The amount of taste and tenderness evident in this production can't be overstated, as it would have been easy to make a tawdry movie. After all, there are so many crude movies stuffed with sex jokes. Here, the subject matter is handled so well that it's not titillating, and there is actually much more to the plot than the six client-therapist sessions. The humor is genuine and self-depracating, the acting natural and moving, and the situations matter-of-fact.
What Doesn't Work
Adam Arkin plays Cheryl's husband, and he's too severe -- made to be the villain, and their family dynamic is only briefly examined. It's either too much or too little, depending on your view.
Director: Ben Lewin
Starring: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt and William H. Macy
Rated: R for strong sexuality including graphic nudity and frank dialogue