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Movie Review: 'The Sessions'

Brave and honest, this film about sex and disability connects with all of us. Performances, direction shine

Director: Ben Lewin
Rating R. Running Time: 1 hour 38 minutes
Stars: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy

(Watch our exclusive behind-the-scenes feature about The Sessions with writer/director Ben Lewin, above. You'll find a trailer for the film on page 2 of our review.)

spinner image Helen Hunt and John Hawkes in the movie The Sessions.
In "The Sessions," Helen Hunt plays a sex surrogate and John Hawkes is polio survivor Mark O'Brien.
Fox Searchlight

One of my favorite films of the year so far, The Sessions is remarkably brave. Its overall subject is sex, presented in an unadorned way, but so beautifully done as to fully reveal the emotional human complexity beyond the act. The Sessions is also about living with a disability, and it expresses a handicapped individual's yearning to connect intimately — leaving the viewer utterly uplifted.

Based on the 1990 magazine article, "On Seeing a Sex Surrogate," the film tells the true story of its author, journalist and poet Mark O'Brien, a man who spent most of his life in an iron lung having been rendered essentially paralyzed from the neck down by polio he acquired when he was 6. Nonetheless, O'Brien managed to graduate from the University of California at Berkeley, and to amass a significant body of work, writing by holding a stick-like device between his teeth.

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Destined to rely on caregivers to feed, bathe and, during the few hours each day he could survive outside the chamber of the artificial lung, transport him on a horizontal gurney, O'Brien retained physical sensitivity and reactivity. And at the age of 38, his spine twisted and weighing well under 100 pounds, he determined to lose his virginity before he died. (He passed away in 1999 at the age of 49.)

A devout Catholic, he sought out permission to engage in extramarital sex from his local priest, who granted it, saying he believed God would give him a pass. Then he hired a sex surrogate, a professional who'd worked with disabled individuals before who was committed to handling most of the action while teaching O'Brien to enjoy the moment without "reacting" too quickly.

Writer-director Ben Lewin, who is himself a polio survivor and walks with crutches, deserves huge credit, for having the guts to explore both sex and disability on the big screen. He exquisitely develops his characters: O'Brien is uniquely smart, funny and charming, and Cheryl Greene, the real-life therapist, has professional boundaries that, alas, are susceptible to emotional penetration. Their exchanges, verbal and physical, are so perfectly cued as to represent real-life, universally understood intimacy. Lewin's script and direction are what place The Sessions, along with Coming Home and My Left Foot, in that group of films that illustrate how a disability does not define a person.

Of course, Lewin couldn't have accomplished this without awesome performances from his lead actors. John Hawkes, who won an Oscar nomination for his turn as a backwoods meth dealer in 2010's Winter's Bone, plays O'Brien with a brazen, wry ferocity. Using a painfully uncomfortable bolster, he contorts his body into something ravaged by disease, and he modulates his breathing and speech to affect someone requiring nearly 60 pounds of pressure to keep the air moving in and out.

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During the sex sessions, Hawkes is genuinely, believably awkward, and his costar, the wonderfully talented Helen Hunt, is flat-out courageous. She fully exposes herself, no airbrushing or teasing placements of fabric in place. Her character is a trained psychologist with a husband and teenage son at home, and she knows the limits like the back of her hand. But Hunt can't help letting the other person in, and that, more than losing his virginity, was what the real Mark O'Brien wanted. Both Hawkes and Hunt are deserving of award nominations for their work on this film.

Smaller roles in The Sessions, including that of William H. Macy, who plays the Catholic priest, and relative newcomer Annika Marks, who plays one of O'Brien's caregivers, further enrich the film. 

The Sessions could easily have come off as sappy or voyeuristic — even icky. And while it's in your face, it's also gentle and life-reaffirming and loving. You won't want to look away.

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