The surprise: despite possibly dire subject matter, The Sessions is mostly a comedy. The plot follows Berkeley writer Mark O’Brien (subject of the documentary Breathing Lessons), who was confined to an iron lung because of childhood polio. Set in the late 1980s, The Sessions is based on work O’Brien did for the lit-magazine The Sun about losing his virginity late in his 30s to a sex therapist.
Helen Hunt has the role of Cheryl, an un-glam healer—she drives a Country Squire station wagon. Hunt’s aquiline face is seasoned but not carved into a doll’s grimace by plastic surgery like far too many of her contemporaries. It’s essential to her aura of authority.
John Hawkes, who plays Mark, has excelled as dangerous men—the Manson figure in Martha Marcy May Marlene and the meth-cooking uncle in Winter’s Bone. The gold standard of paralytic acting is still Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot, but Hawkes’ gentleness and fine comic timing make this a sex comedy of a variety we haven’t seen before.
The scenes of Hunt and Hawkes together require unidealized physical contact. (It turns out not to be a good idea to sit on the face of a person who has to sleep in an iron lung.) To gin up the potential romance, The Sessions wanders away from the respect it might give to sex surrogacy, an unusual and surely difficult profession. It didn’t have to be that way. When Cheryl comes home unnerved by a hard day’s work, her husband, Josh (Adam Arkin), says without irony, “You’re a saint.” It might have been more adult to take The Sessions in that direction: there still are Berkeley (and elsewhere) husbands who wouldn’t mind.
But we get what we get in the movies. The Sessions is essentially lovable. Hawkes and Hunt are touching, and director-writer Ben Lewin’s final matching shots are both gently sentimental and tastily mordant—especially considering that this movie could have gone so, so wrong.
‘The Sessions’ opens Nov. 9 at Summerfield Cinemas.