The Sessions is a feel-good romance about pity sex.
That's not how it's pitched, of course. The story of a paralyzed polio victim/journalist (John Hawkes) who engages a sexual surrogate – a therapist who teaches him how to have sex by having sex with him – is an uplifting tale of a great soul trapped in a ruined body, about a desperate wish to feel complete and the way this incomplete man completes the women fortunate enough to know him.
Mark O'Brien spends his nights in an iron lung and his days coping with a parade of caregivers. He's a poet, a great profession for somebody who lives inside your head. He managed to graduate from college. He can write, tapping out keys one at a time, using a stick in his mouth. But he knows that I'm always in somebody's way.
And he's all too aware of his own mortality: I'm getting close to my ‘use-by' date.
His body also is telling him he needs love. He wants to experience it before he dies.
William H. Macy plays the hip, understanding long-haired priest (San Francisco, the '80s, go figure) to whom Mark confesses his desires. Mark's researching a magazine article about sex and the handicapped. He has some good information. He just wants the priest to give me an advance quote on what that will do to his chances for salvation.
Helen Hunt plays Cheryl, a sexual surrogate – women paid to clinically teach and administer hands-on sexual instruction to the disabled.
Writer-director Ben Lewin's film, based on a true story, is a fascinating peek into the sexual difficulties faced by those in wheelchairs or on gurneys.
Some of the humor comes from Mark's skewed take on his own neediness and his open-sanctuary confessions to his priest (his gurney won't fit in a confessional). The rest comes from Moon Bloodgood, playing a droll, no-nonsense caregiver who treats Mark's needs and his clinical solutions to them (a hotel room is required) so matter-of-factly that her every conversation with the desk clerk is a laugh.
Hunt, a wonderful, under-used Oscar winner, has a gift for tugging at the heartstrings. It's a guarded performance, despite the nudity the role entails. She gives Cheryl this little facial twitch whenever she senses Mark is developing feelings, and she gives filmgoers a misty-eyed moment when we sense she is developing feelings herself.
Hawkes makes Mark lonely but not sad, severely restricted but playful. What's missing is a greater appreciation of his charms, the writing and sensitivity that draws women to him. We catch only a hint of it.
And as touching as The Sessions can be, it never transcends that feeling that what's going on here is therapeutic and clinically erotic but never really romantic.
What: The Sessions
Starring: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy, Moon Bloodgood
Directed by: Ben Lewin
Running time: 95 minutes
Rated: R for strong sexuality including graphic nudity and frank dialogue