Mark O'Brien likes the ladies, likes to dress up, likes to go out. Frankly, he's interested in sexual fulfillment. But despite his delightful personality, Mark's dating prospects are not so great. Because of a childhood bout with polio, he can only be out of his iron lung for a few hours at a time, and his body is virtually immobile from the neck down.
At age 38, he's determined to find someone experienced and nonjudgmental to teach him about sexuality. He needs a professional sex surrogate. After all, as he says, "I haven't seen my penis since I was 6 years old."
"The Sessions" is a heartfelt, moving dramatic comedy that addresses the erotic longings of a disabled man without patronizing him or the audience. Writer/director Ben Lewin, a polio survivor, knows precisely how to tell this unique story, and he's aided by a gallery of stunningly good performances.
John Hawkes, that brilliant quicksilver actor, pours himself into the role of Mark, a real-life San Francisco writer who died in 1999. Lying immobile throughout the film in a bed, a gurney or a respirator, moving his head just 90 degrees and his body not at all, he delivers a humane, funny, soaring performance. Mark's body is atrophied, but his wit is electric and his soul is expansive and poetic. He's devoutly religious, but spars affectionately with God. "It would be unbearable not to have someone to blame for all this," he says. Mark seeks moral advice from his priest (William H. Macy, an easygoing, long-haired West Coast sort of padre). When Father Brendan understands that Mark is interested in sex primarily because he is interested in love and a relationship with someone, he says, "I have a feeling God is going to give you a pass on this one."
As if to prove that providence smiles on his quest, Mark has the serendipity to meet Cheryl (Helen Hunt), a compassionate professional whose brisk therapeutic manner shields her sensitive nature. Their encounters are shot frankly, a bit clinical at first but with an increasingly warm sensuality that never feels exploitative.
Although Cheryl strictly limits emotional entanglements with her clients, she and Mark experience a rapport that causes her to question her code.
The film bristles with sharp-eyed character observations. I appreciated the way Mark's therapeutic roll in the hay doesn't magically solve all his problems. Lewin shows how Mark uses his amiability to disarm the attractive women he meets. I enjoyed the way that easy charm deserts him when he stammers a misguided marriage proposal to a loyal attendant (Maxim hottie Moon Bloodgood, droll as a gorgeous, repressed feminist frump). Father Brendan, himself in a celibate life that may pinch a bit, becomes fascinated by the details of Mark's sexual awakening -- strictly for his spiritual guidance, of course. Cheryl's matter-of-fact façade begins to crack as her feelings for Mark deepen, with consequences to her home life that Lewin explores with mature sensitivity. The film is consistently surprising, not least in the way it avoids a preachy or saccharine tone. This is a crowd-pleaser of the finest sort.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186