“The Sessions” is about as close to an NC-17 rating as a film can get – it has extremely explicit sex talk, and features Helen Hunt, naked as the day she was born, performing graphic sex acts with a disabled person played by John Hawkes. Yet director Ben Lewin’s film, far from being porn for the raincoat brigade, is one of the most heartfelt, human and uplifting movies of the year. It’s also one of the best.
Based on the real-life experiences of California poet Mark O’Brien (Hawkes), who contracted polio at age 6 and spent most of his life in an iron lung (he couldn’t move, but could feel), “The Sessions” tells how, at age 38, O’Brien decided he wanted to lose his virginity, and hired a sex surrogate (Hunt) to help him achieve that goal.
In the hands of a hack, this could be some kind of sniggering frat boy tale, the svelte Hunt (who looks terrific at age 49) fulfilling some poor incapacitated male’s most desperate sex fantasies. But director Lewin, who himself contracted polio at the same age as O’Brien (and walks with crutches), has crafted a sophisticated story that is incredibly life-affirming and often deliciously humorous.
He’s aided immeasurably by the two leads, both of whom give Oscar-worthy performances. Hawkes, probably best known for his creepy roles in “Winter’s Bone” and “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” plays O’Brien as an adorably charming, funny guy who only wants to become as human as possible. Desperate for love, he’s initially terrified of the service Hunt can provide, but soon loosens up and becomes a full sexual being. Hunt’s character is a professional who combines therapy with sex play. She’s all business at first, but ultimately moved by O’Brien’s sweetness and desire, begins to develop a real fondness for him. And even though this relationship is short-lived, it opens O’Brien up to other worldly possibilities; which is one of the main points of this lovely film.
As “The Sessions” covers the four therapeutic meetings that Hunt and Hawkes participate in – from “body awareness” to full-out intercourse – a sense of intimacy, a delicacy of tone, and a streak of absurdity emerges. This is sex as pain, as pleasure, as a means to communicate. And as sympathetic bystanders, some of the funniest sequences involve William H. Macy as a rather hip priest whom O’Brien befriends and confesses to, and Moon Bloodgood, playing O’Brien’s caregiver, who tries to convince a skeptical motel clerk that the guy on the gurney really is trying to achieve simultaneous orgasm with that pretty blonde who went into a room with him.
But this is not a film about sex, although it is highly sexual. “The Sessions” makes what some people might consider bizarre fully human. It reminds us that we all have the same desires, and that love is probably the most elemental one of all. Mark O’Brien may be forced by circumstance to live inside his head, but he has a body and normal passions. And in fulfilling his dreams, “The Sessions” tells us that love comes in many guises.