By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
Sex in movies isn't usually handled with as much maturity and purpose as writer-director Ben Lewin manages with The Sessions. This movie features desire that isn't prurient, nudity that isn't gratuitous and discussions of sexual technique and points of arousal that aren't just setting up punch lines. It's a grown-up movie about sex, a Hollywood oxymoron, to be sure.
Based on a true story, The Sessions is also everything that description would seem to defy: humorous and heartwarming, a celebration of sex and its unique way of transforming the way we feel about ourselves. Last year we had the aptly titled Shame that some hailed as an honest exploration of carnal needs, and made me feel dirty and bored watching it. The Sessions is quite the opposite, a movie making sex appear fun, necessary and not to be taken for granted.
As a 38-year-old virgin, Mark O'Brien certainly didn't take sex lightly. Abstinence wasn't his idea, rather a cruel twist of genetics. Polio began ravaging his body at age 6, whittling away muscle control to the extent that his days were mostly spent inside an iron lung, immobile except for slight head movements.
O'Brien still achieved, graduating from college and being published as a poet and journalist, tapping keyboards with a pencil clenched in his mouth. O'Brien knew he wouldn't live long, and No. 1 on his bucket list was losing his virginity. The Sessions is a perceptive dramatization of how it happened, with a sex surrogate patiently breaking through O'Brien's shyness, naivete and Catholic guilt.
At this point, it's important to make clear that Lewin hasn't made just another weepy drama of overcoming odds, a My Left Foot with a different appendage. The Sessions is often brazenly funny, not from shocking dialogue but characters speaking and reacting the way real people do, especially with such a flustering subject as sex.
O'Brien is remarkably played by John Hawkes, an Oscar nominee for Winter's Bone and an immediate contender for this year's prizes. This is a performance forced to forgo almost all the actor's tools of movement and inflection, strangled by the character's debilitation. Hawkes nonetheless crafts a character who is joyful, curious, a bit of a smart aleck and absolutely not a victim. Using so little Hawkes creates so much.
Sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene provides Helen Hunt with her best role since winning a 1999 Oscar for As Good As It Gets. Hunt has been so negligible since then that watching her in The Sessions is like discovering a new talent. Cheryl is a professional but not a prostitute, as she promptly explains to Mark in friendly yet clinical tones. Hunt boldly bares her body and subtly Cheryl's soul, as her emotions for Mark become mixed.
There are entertaining distractions by William H. Macy as a confidante priest and Moon Bloodgood as Mark's urging caretaker. But the memorable parts of The Sessions are Mark and Cheryl's time alone, filled with the awkward, leading and triumphant moments sex can bring. I have a feeling that women will hear Cheryl's lessons in intimacy, patience and attention and hope their lovers are listening. Men paying attention will be much better off in bed.
Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365.