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The Sessions tells the story of a 38-year-old virgin, but unlike that movie about the 40-year-old celibate that stars Steve Carell, The Sessions doesn’t treat the hero’s predicament as a farce. The Sessions is based on the experiences of journalist and poet Mark O’Brien, a polio survivor who recounted the story of the loss of his virginity in an article titled “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate.” Having contracted polio at the age of 6, O’Brien was paralyzed by the disease and lived his life from within the confines of an iron lung, an entombment he was unable to escape more than a few hours at a time. However, the Berkeley, Calif., resident still managed to attend college on a self-propelled gurney, earn a journalism degree, and write with an assistive device he operated with his mouth. His successful writing career concluded with his death in 1999, and his life and caustic wit was documented in Jessica Yu’s Oscar-winning short film, “Breathing Lessons.”
Were you to come to The Sessions expecting a disease-of-the-week heartstring-puller, you’d be completely out of luck – fortunately. The film doesn’t seek to document O’Brien’s life or valorize his accomplishments. Instead, The Sessions is an unsentimental movie about the need for intimacy and human contact. Upon receiving a magazine assignment to pen an article about sex and the disabled person, O’Brien (John Hawkes) faces the fact that he has had no sexual experiences of his own, and, furthermore, the only time he has felt human touch has been while undergoing medical procedures or being bathed or moved. Complicating O’Brien’s regret is his devout Catholicism, a religion with a long history of decrying recreational sex. O’Brien’s priest, who is played by William H. Macy, is a vital element of the movie, conducting long conversations with O’Brien and giving him a benevolent God’s blessing in his quest to explore the mysteries of sex with the aid of a surrogate.
Enter Helen Hunt, who plays the sex surrogate, Cheryl Cohen Greene. A wife and mother, Cohen Greene hardly fulfills the prurient image that sex therapists hold in popular thought. Her approach to her own body and O’Brien’s is very practical and matter-of-fact. Although we frequently see Hunt’s body naked, there is nothing salacious or voyeuristic about how it is presented – unlike the way women’s bodies are displayed in most movies. Cohen Greene’s pragmatic attitude meshes nicely with O’Brien’s acerbic wit, and over the course of their sessions, an emotional bond grows – despite her best efforts to keep the relationship professional. Still, the film never plunges into sentimental fluff or pitying mannerisms. The straightforward performances are key to the film’s tone, and Hawkes’ work – relying on his noggin as his only expressive tool – is sure to be noticed among year-end award-givers. Writer/Director Ben Lewin, himself a polio survivor, no doubt brings an extra level of sensitivity to the project. There are few surprises in The Sessions, and while at first that might seem disappointing, upon reflection, the normalcy of individuals “just looking for some touch” is what’s celebrated here.