A man in his thirties who has spent his adult life flat on his back in an iron lung and has never had a sexual experience decides to attempt intercourse with a paid therapist. But first the man, a devout Catholic, consults with his parish priest about the morality of it. Just the thing for a lighthearted, romantic night at the movies, right?
And when we factor in that the disabled man in question, based on late Berkeley writer Mark O'Brien, is played by John Hawkes — the actor whose portrayals of a meth addict in Winter's Bone and a sinister cult leader in Martha Marcy May Marlene sent chills down the spines of movie audiences — we have to assume that this film has all the makings of the biggest bummer of the season, or at best a well-meaning-but-maudlin item from the liberal-guilt file.
We'd be wrong, of course. Writer-director Ben Lewin's The Sessions happens to be a funny, sexy, and unabashedly life-affirming character-study, a romantic drama that does all the right things with its touchy ingredients. The trick is in the casting: Hawkes, as polio survivor O'Brien, researching a book on disabled sex and also seriously curious; Helen Hunt, in the key role of a professional sexual surrogate named Cheryl with issues of her own (read an interviw with the real-life Cheryl on page 24); and William H. Macy as Mark's spiritual counselor, Father Brendan. Thanks to Lewin's bright dialogue, this acting trio lifts a potentially dismal social-problem vignette to rarefied heights. It's a feel-gooder no one has to be ashamed to admit they enjoyed, sparkling with unexpected personality.
Paralyzed from the neck down, Mark nonetheless possesses the gift of gab. How else could he joke his way into the confidences of so many people whose main reaction to him otherwise would be pity and nothing more? Activists have reportedly criticized the filmmakers and Hawkes, the gripe being that a disabled actor should have gotten the role. Their point is valid but slim — few actors, abled or not, could have done what Hawkes does with little else than line readings and facial gestures. Mark O'Brien comes across as one of the most charming movie characters in recent memory, alternating between self-deprecating wisecracks about his condition and lack of experience, and flat-out panic on the doorstep of doing the deed. He actually manages to restore a sense of mystery to the sex act. That alone qualifies as a triumph.
The expressions on Father Brendan's face and his quizzical relationship with Mark — half confessor and half conspirator — are tempered with the unspoken understanding that their partnership is a variation on the blind leading the blind, two male virgins trying to make a moral case for satisfying carnal urges, for the solace of a restless soul. In all Macy's fine work for playwright David Mamet on stage and screen, it's unlikely that he has ever played a character on such a purely academic quest.
And then there's Hunt's Cheryl, without whom the tale makes no sense. More often than not in her film career, Hunt has played difficult-to-admire characters, variations on the theme of selfishness, but her caregiver Cheryl is different — neither a saint nor a whore with a heart of gold, but a woman willing to assume a persona, a sort of Freudian priestess of the temple of the body. Naturally, she's conflicted when Mark wants the relationship to progress to the next stage. And just as naturally, she makes it known that her role is facilitator, not lover. As with the two men, Cheryl's complicated personality assumes a larger role thanks to Lewin's expansive writing. That noted, Ms. Hunt's 49-year-old body (she does not use a body double) is a marvel of nature in its own right.
Filmmaker Lewin, a native of Poland who has worked in Australia, the UK, and Hollywood, primarily in the comedy vein on TV (Ally McBeal, Touched by an Angel), hits the high notes with ease in The Sessions. He's never had talent like Hawkes, Hunt, and Macy as his instruments before, and he makes the best of them. And the idea of Berkeley, in the Nineties or whenever, has never seemed sweeter.
The true story behind The Sessions originally appeared as a first-person feature by O'Brien, "On Seeing a Sex Surrogate," which was published in 1990 in The Sun. A few of us at the Express believe that O'Brien's story may have been published around the same time (perhaps even first) in these pages — but because there exist no digital files of our stories before 2001, that's open to question. Anyone in the East Bay Express community who has info on the provenance of the story is invited to send it to the email address at the end of this review.