Movie review: 'Sessions' a triumphant tale of discovering sexuality

Review • Hawkes, Hunt give resonant performances.
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It's rare that sex in movies is as amazing, transcendent, life-affirming and joyous as the best sex in real life can be.

"The Sessions" is one of those rare movies, because it explores human sexuality — and humanity — with a passion that engages the heart, mind and soul all at once.

Set in 1988, writer-director Ben Lewin begins by introducing Mark O'Brien, a real-life Berkeley, Calif., journalist and poet who lived most of his life in an iron lung. Mark (played here by John Hawkes) contracted polio as a child, leaving his arms and legs too weak to function. He can turn his head some, and work a mouth stick to turn pages or dial a phone — and his brain and spirit are inconquerable.

When he's assigned to write an article about sexuality among disabled people, Mark confronts a painful truth: At 38 years old, he's a virgin — and he'd like to change that. "My penis speaks to me, Father," Mark, a devout Catholic, confides to his parish priest, Father Brennan (William H. Macy). Father Brennan, after mulling it over, allays Mark's fears: "I think God will give you a pass on this one."

With help from his caregiver, Vera (Moon Bloodgood), Mark arranges an appointment with a sex surrogate, a therapist who specializes in helping people overcome their sexual issues. This is done by getting in bed with the client and talking him through intercourse. And, no, a sex surrogate isn't the same thing as a prostitute — something the surrogate, Cheryl Cohen-Greene (played by Helen Hunt), cheerily and patiently explains to Mark on the first of their six sessions.

It's in these sessions that Lewin, an Australian filmmaker who also suffered from polio as a child, finds the emotional core of his smartly written movie. (It's appropriate that the movie was retitled "The Sessions" after its premiere at this year's Sundance Film Festival, when it was called "The Surrogate.") Cheryl helps Mark become comfortable with his own body, and with touching a woman's body, as he comes to terms with the pain and guilt over his polio. At the same time, Cheryl finds her professional detachment wavering as she encounters the romantic soul within Mark's broken body.

The sex scenes are frank and explicit, but never cheap and exploitative. (Yes, they get naked. Grow up.) The nudity isn't airbrushed pin-up perfection, but raw and real — and all the more lovely and moving because of it.

Issues of faith also propel the story. Mark's Catholic guilt becomes an obstacle to his progress, while Cheryl deals with her spirituality as she converts to Judaism to please her husband (Adam Arkin).

Hawkes, who earned an Oscar nomination as a tough backwoodsman in "Winter's Bone," transforms for the role of the quadriplegic Mark. He gets not only the awkward physicality, but also the sense of liberation that this sexual journey affords him. Hawkes also exudes the offbeat humor and romantic soulfulness of Mark's writings. (If you want a taste of the real Mark O'Brien, seek out Jessica Yu's Oscar-winning documentary short "Breathing Lessons." With luck, it will be included as an extra on the DVD.)

Hunt gives a performance that's as revelatory emotionally as it is physically. She embodies Cheryl's cheery, no-nonsense approach to human sexuality and her capacity to be touched by a client who's different from any she's experienced before.

"The Sessions" is filled with good humor, sly wit and an exuberant attitude about the resiliency of the human spirit. It's a sex film that you'll feel good about the next morning.

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'The Sessions'

A polio-stricken poet wants to experience sex in this exuberant and well-acted comedy-drama.

Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas.

When • Opens Friday, Nov. 16.

Rating • R for strong sexuality including graphic nudity and frank dialogue.

Running time • 95 minutes.