This publicity photo released by Fox Searchlight Pictures shows Helen Hunt in a scene from “The Sessions.” (AP Photo/Fox Searchlight Pictures)
Given that it’s based on the true story of a man with polio who spends most of his time in an iron lung, “The Sessions” is not as painfully heavy-handed as it might sound. And given that it’s about this man’s nervous attempts to lose his virginity at age 38, it’s also not as obnoxiously wacky as it might sound.
Instead, “The Sessions” occupies a safe gray area somewhere in the middle. It has some difficult and heartfelt performances as well as moments of uncomfortable honesty, but ultimately writer-director Ben Lewin’s film feels too slight, too pat, and too wildly overhyped out of its festival showings. It is, in short, a nice story — but not one that’s told with any particular stylistic panache or emotional power.
Still, the hugely versatile John Hawkes gives a subtly funny, impressive performance which must have been a massive physical challenge. The lanky but intimidating co-star of “Winter’s Bone” and “Martha Marcy May Marlene” is called upon here to act entirely with his face and voice, frequently having to keep his torso still while lying down in a contorted posture.
Hawkes stars as Mark O’Brien, the Berkeley, Calif.-based poet and journalist whose 1990 article, “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate,” inspired the script. Lewin — who also contracted polio as a child — lays out the details of Mark’s daily existence in matter-of-fact fashion, and with zero condescension. He can breathe on his own for a few hours at a time, he can turn the pages of a book or dial a phone with a stick in his mouth, and while he can’t move anything from the neck down, he can still feel sensation.
Hence, his interest in visiting Cheryl Cohen Greene, a married sex therapist played with an appealing directness (and a great deal of nudity) by Helen Hunt. Their body language sometimes literally reveals everything about them in the first of their six scheduled meetings, making “The Sessions” the rare film to address sexuality in such an unadorned, judgment-free way. While the suggestion of a deeper romantic connection between the two feels forced, their shared sense of humanity and self-deprecating humor always make their meetings compelling. Hunt radiates a kindness and decency that helps keep the film grounded.
William H. Macy gets some laughs, as well, as the Catholic priest who helps Mark reconcile his curiosity with his deep faith. Macy’s portrayal defies some of the expectations that viewers might have of the clergy: “I know in my heart that God will give you a free pass on this one,” he says in giving his blessing to Mark to pay a stranger for sex.
Afterward, the priest will bring over a six-pack of beer to hear all the juicy details. “The Sessions” similarly has a fascination with intimacy — and similarly, it means well.
“The Sessions,” a Fox Searchlight release, is rated R for strong sexuality including graphic nudity and frank dialogue. Running time: 95 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definition for R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.