The Sessions tells the story of a 38-year-old virgin, but unlike the Steve Carell movie about a 40-year-old celibate, it doesn't treat the hero's predicament as a farce. The Sessions is based on the experiences of journalist and poet Mark O'Brien, a polio survivor who recounted how he lost his virginity in a University of Wisconsin Press book called How I Became a Human Being.
Polio paralyzed O'Brien at age 6, forcing him to live within the confines of an iron lung. Though he could escape for only a few hours at a time, he managed to attend college on a self-propelled gurney, earn a journalism degree and write with a device he operated with his mouth. His successful career concluded with his death in 1999, and his life was documented in Jessica Yu's Oscar-winning short film Breathing Lessons.
Unlike Breathing Lessons, The Sessions doesn't seek to document O'Brien's life or valorize his accomplishments. Instead, it's an unsentimental movie about the need for intimacy and human contact. When writing a magazine article about sex and the disabled person, O'Brien (John Hawkes) grapples with regret: He has had no sexual experiences of his own, and the only time he ever feels human touch is during medical procedures or while being bathed or moved. Complicating matters is his devout Catholicism. A vital element of the movie is a priest (William H. Macy) who gives O'Brien a benevolent God's blessing in his quest to explore the mysteries of sex.
Enter Helen Hunt, who plays sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene. A wife and mother, Cohen Greene hardly fulfills the prurient image sex therapists hold in the popular imagination. Her approach to her own body and O'Brien's is very practical and matter-of-fact. Although we frequently see Hunt's body naked, there is nothing salacious or voyeuristic about how it's presented. Cohen Greene's pragmatic attitude meshes nicely with O'Brien's acerbic wit, and over the course of their sessions, an emotional bond grows, despite her best efforts to keep the relationship professional.
Still, The Sessions never plunges into sentimental fluff or pitying mannerisms. The straightforward performances are key to the film's tone, and Hawkes' work - relying on his noggin as his only expressive tool - is sure to be noticed by year-end award-givers. Writer-director Ben Lewin, himself a polio survivor, brings an extra level of sensitivity to the project.
That said, there are few surprises in The Sessions. At first this might seem disappointing, but upon reflection, the normalcy of individuals "just looking for some touch" is worth celebrating.