If there’s one thing Hollywood loves, it’s a romantic comedy about a paraplegic virgin in his 40s that combines sex and polio . . . right? Not quite, but you’d never know it while watching the hilariously uplifting and expertly acted new film from writer/director Ben Lewin called The Sessions.
The movie is about a lot of things, but mostly it’s about a man who decides one day that the life he has been told he is destined to live (essentially that of a potted plant) is not the one he will, in fact, live. Stricken with polio and used to having every rudimentary task done for him that other adult humans take for granted, Mark (John Hawkes) seeks the counsel of his closest confidante who also happens to be something of a hippie priest (William H. Macy). The two of them decide that sex for the disabled is not such a far fetched idea but that Mark will have to go a different route than the typical one sought by those trying to join the land of the sexually active: there will be no dating, hand holding, or asking pretty girls for their phone numbers. Instead, they will employ a sexual surrogate named Cheryl (Helen Hunt) who is both a sex therapist and who, um, has sex with her clients.
Yes, it all sounds like a euphemism for prostitution, but it’s not, because (according to the sex therapist, at least) there will be only six sessions upon the completion of which she will exit Mark’s life forever, leaving him with a carnal knowledge of the female body and the ability to die knowing he has given up his virginity to a woman of his choice. The sessions that they share ultimately become about much more than sex, and both learn things about life, love, and even body parts that they could not possibly have learned from any other being on the planet. That, in short, is the magic of this movie.
Though William H. Macy is superb in his supporting role as the “pimping” priest Father Brendan, Helen Hunt proves yet again why she is one of the modern era’s most underutilized and undervalued actresses in her role as Cheryl. Yes, she has an Oscar, but that was back in 1998, and since As Good As It Gets she has had to play largely watered down versions of her award winning role that have stunted her growth on screen in the eyes of audiences. She plays Cheryl as a fresh, unchained burst of energy and without any of the stereotypical hunkering down of sexual meaning that Hollywood scribes like to pretend dictate the minds of all women. If there is any justice in this world, Hunt will get noticed for this almost ethereal performance and will be richly rewarded: and by that I mean more and better roles, not statuettes.
In the end, however, it is John Hawkes’s performance as Mark that defines the movie. He makes the film as endearing and heartfelt as it is, and often times through the pure discomfort of his sexual journey the audiences learns to cheer him on (in more ways than one, I must admit). An unusual, brilliant, and understated masterpiece that demands to be seen. Don’t miss it.