The Sessions is a sentimental, feel-good romance about pity sex.
That's not how it's pitched, of course. The story of a journalist (John Hawkes) paralyzed by polio who engages a sexual surrogate — a therapist who teaches him how to have sex by having sex with him — is uplifting, a tale of a great soul trapped in a ruined body, about a desperate wish to feel "complete" and the way this incomplete man completes the women fortunate enough to know him.
But holes in the script leave us with the feeling that what we're seeing is a woman feel sorry for the less fortunate when she isn't being clinical.
Mark O'Brien spends his nights in an iron lung and his days coping with a parade of caregivers. He's a poet, a great profession for somebody who lives inside his head. He can write, tapping out keys, one at a time, using a stick he holds in his mouth. But he knows "I'm always in somebody's way" and is all too aware of his own mortality.
His body also is telling him he needs love. A virgin, he wants to experience it before he dies. Simply declaring his affection to an attractive caregiver is not enough.
William H. Macy plays the hip, understanding long-haired priest (San Francisco, the '80s, go figure) to whom Mark confesses his desires. Mark is researching a magazine article about sex and the handicapped. He has some good information. He just wants the priest to "give me an advance quote" on what that will do to his chances for salvation.
Helen Hunt plays Cheryl, a sexual surrogate who is paid to teach and administer hands-on sexual instruction to the disabled.
Writer-director Ben Lewin's film, based on a true story, is a fascinating peek into the sexual difficulties faced by those stuck in wheelchairs or on gurneys, and their possibilities for sexual fulfillment. A couple of handicapped supporting actors fill out the cast.
Some of the humor comes from Mark's skewed take on his own neediness and his open-sanctuary confessions to his priest (his gurney won't fit in a confessional). The rest comes from Moon Bloodgood, playing a droll, no-nonsense caregiver who treats Mark's needs and his clinical solutions to them (a hotel room is required) so matter-of-factly that her every conversation with the desk clerk is a laugh.
The wonderful, under-used Hunt — an Oscar winner (in 1998 for As Good as It Gets) and Emmy winner (four years in a row for Mad About You) — has a gift for tugging at the heartstrings. It's a guarded performance, despite the nudity the role entails. She gives Cheryl this little facial twitch whenever she senses Mark is developing feelings, and she gives filmgoers a misty-eyed moment when we sense she is developing feelings herself.
Hawkes, who burst on the scene with riveting/menacing turns in Winter's Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene, makes Mark lonely without being sad, severely restricted but with a hint of playfulness about him. Playing such a character can feel like a stunt, but Hawkes never loses the guy's humanity.
What's missing in Lewin's film is a greater appreciation of Mark's charms, the writing and sensitivity that draws women to him. We catch a hint of it, but only a hint. Without more of his writing and beguiling wit, we're left with his earnestness, his eagerness to lose his virginity and the reactions of women around him to this need.
As touching as The Sessions can be sometimes, this engaging film never transcends that feeling that what's going on here is therapeutic and clinically erotic but never really romantic.