In our culture today, sex is everywhere.
Intimacy is harder to come by.
“The Sessions,” a movie about a disabled man’s quest to lose his virginity with a sex surrogate, makes this point with great heart, humor, deep feeling and artistry.
It is, as they say, based on a true story. Mark O’Brien, a Berkeley, Calif., poet and journalist who contracted polio as a child, spent most of his life in an iron lung. He could survive outside it for just three or four hours a day.
His body had feeling everywhere, but his twisted muscles refused to operate his limbs. He was transported by caregivers, who pushed the gurney on which he lay wherever he needed to go.
In 1990 O’Brien wrote an article, “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate,” about his experience at age 38 with Cheryl Cohen Green, a married mother of two who, at least in this movie, is very serious about her profession of helping people.
Cheryl (Helen Hunt, “As Good as It Gets”) has ground rules. There can be no more than six sessions. This must be about what Mark needs to move forward in life but cannot be about moving their relationship beyond the initial goal.
That proves tricky for both.
Mark (John Hawkes, “Winter’s Bone”) lays his own groundwork as a devout Catholic by going to confession, telling his priest (William H. Macy, “Fargo”) what he plans to do before the sessions begin. He’s looking for advance absolution, since sex outside the marital bond is a sin under church law.
Happily, Father Brendan is not a stickler. He knows Mark’s situation and his heart. The priest’s own celibacy, perhaps, adds to his humanity.
Hunt’s character is very matter of fact about disrobing, describing what she will do with Mark, and talking about sex. Mark’s character is full of fear and anxiety, has guilt issues (not just about sex) and pours his heart into poetry, some of which we get to hear.
Mark reports back to his priest about everything, and those scenes are a source of warmth, humor and life wisdom.
Cheryl is contending with issues at home (Adam Arkin plays her unemployed husband) and within her heart as well, shaping her into a complex character.
If nudity and straight talk about sex put you off, this is not your movie — though what is shown onscreen sexually is mostly left to the imagination.
Director-screenwriter Ben Lewin (“Ally McBeal,” “Touched by an Angel”), a polio survivor, carefully avoids sentimentality in the telling of this emotionally delicate journey.
Hawkes and Hunt are so good at their craft, we see a universality in what they are experiencing — a bond that flows from intimacy to transcend anything sexual. These are brave, delicate, Oscar-caliber performances.
And this movie is one of the year’s best.
Contact the writer: