Mark O’Brien, 38 years old and devoutly Catholic, hires a sex surrogate to relieve him of his virginity in The Sessions, and we watch him up close and in bed as he achieves his goal. But wait, there’s more. Because of childhood polio, O’Brien (John Hawkes) can’t move his body below his neck, and when he isn’t lying flat in the iron lung that helps him breathe, he’s lying flat on a gurney, bathed and fed by a rotation of attendants. Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt), the woman he hires, is experienced at working with the disabled, and she strips naked to teach her client — whose equipment seems to have a mind of its own — about sensation, control, and cues. Mission accomplished!
All this might have seemed too much of a high concept — a pruriently graphic, NC-17 endeavor made noble-mindedly R by the therapeutic setting and the participation of esteemed actors. (There’s even Father Mike, a charismatic full-fledged Roman Catholic priest played by William H. Macy, who counsels O’Brien to go for it.) Except there really was a Mark O’Brien, a published poet and journalist who died in 1999 at the age of 49. He was 4’7” and 60 pounds, and he took the spotlight in Jessica Wu’s terrific 1996 documentary, Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien. And O’Brien’s bracingly direct, explicit 1990 magazine article about his experience with the real Cheryl Cohen Greene is the basis of this similarly frank, frequently funny, uncoyly sexual crowd-pleaser by writer-director Ben Lewin.
As it happens, the 66-year-old Lewin contracted polio himself as a child and walks with crutches. Until this singular work of iron-lung sex and spirituality, his directorial territory was TV, including an episode of Ally McBeal. That training in keeping track of schmaltz and dispensing dry wit makes all the difference between The Sessions being a movie of sharp sweetness and one of button-pushing sap. (The dang music, though, gums up scenes better served without cue-giving melodic tinkles.)
So the story is a head turner. But The Sessions is first and foremost about Hawkes’ virtuoso performance, one of those My Left Foot-y transformations that make audiences verklemmt and generate awards talk. And second, it’s about the elegant matter-of-factness with which the 49-year-old Hunt bares herself, body and actorly soul, for the job. (Because it must be said: wowza.) In an extraordinary approximation of the real O’Brien, Hawkes continues to burnish his reputation as one of those rare artists who know how to disappear into a role with a modesty that cloaks the complexity of the work. And in the lovely choreography between Hawkes and Hunt, as natural-looking as it is unusual, The Sessions becomes a dance of joy in the midst of severe challenge, and a movie with a light spirit that lifts a tale of heavy fate. B+