It sounds like a crude, cruel joke: Did you see the one about the man with polio and the sex surrogate?
"The Sessions," however, is anything but insensitive. It's a moving, fact-based movie girded by fearless performances, one by John Hawkes as a man with a robust mind, spirit and sense of curiosity and the other by Helen Hunt as a sex surrogate who makes it clear she is not a prostitute but a woman who can prepare clients for other partners.
Ms. Hunt sheds her clothes and her inhibitions as her character remains professional but nevertheless connects with Mark. It would be easy for him to sink under the weight of bitterness, self-pity or dependence but he instead chooses to be funny, inquisitive, thoughtful and as independent as life will allow.
3.5 stars = Very Good
- Starring: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy.
- Rating: R for strong sexuality including graphic nudity and frank dialogue.
As the movie opens in 1988, Mark O'Brien (Mr. Hawkes) has been residing in Berkeley, Calif., for a decade and works as a journalist and poet.
The Boston native contracted polio at age 6 and spends most of his time breathing with the help of an iron lung or portable respirator. Although not paralyzed, his muscles do not work and his motionless body lies contorted on a gurney and covered with a blanket, his spine curved, his neck twisted to one side, his head resting on a towel.
None of that stops him from conducting interviews, typing with a mouth stick and retreating to the luxuriant freedom of his fertile mind. A writing assignment about sex and the disabled, combined with his own longing for the occasional pretty aide and desire to lose his virginity at age 38, lead him to consider a sex surrogate.
"I'm probably getting close to my use-by date," he says, only partially joking.
When he asks a priest (William H. Macy) for advice about the surrogate, the good father gives it his blessing, assuming God would do likewise. "In my heart, I feel like He'll give you a free pass on this. Go for it."
Mark does, with ultimately surprising results (this is the rare case when it helps to know little about the man who also was the subject of a 1996 Oscar-winning short), humor, tenderness and explicit nudity along with R-rated talk and sex. In plainer words, Ms. Hunt is naked and although this isn't pornographic, it is adult.
Writer-director Ben Lewin, who also contracted polio as a child, came across Mark's 1990 article titled "On Seeing a Sex Surrogate" on the Internet. He expanded upon that life-changing episode with real-life surrogate Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Ms. Hunt) and turned the various priests Mark consulted into the broad-minded composite portrayed by a shaggy haired Mr. Macy.
In these days of specialized transportation and equipment, it's startling to witness an aide pushing Mark's gurney along the sidewalk or to see him swallowed by the iron lung that doubled as his bedroom furniture.
Mr. Hawkes, an Oscar nominee for his supporting turn in "Winter's Bone," a charismatic cult leader in "Martha Marcy May Marlene" and an early lobbyist in "Lincoln," has none of the usual acting tools at his disposal.
He cannot pace, punch the air, gesture, slump his shoulders or puff up his chest, for starters, but he can use his voice and facial expressions (particularly his expressive eyes) to explore Mark's intellect, wit and complex emotions.
It's not as flashy a role as, say, Daniel Day-Lewis in "Lincoln" or Mr. Day-Lewis in "My Left Foot," but Mr. Hawkes is exceptional and Ms. Hunt is equally accomplished although the story teases her home life more than fully illuminating it. On a minor note, her native New England accent comes and goes.
"The Sessions" is about a man who sought and found passion in poetry, in baseball, in the church and, ultimately, in intimacy. It's about someone who could have been imprisoned by the question, "Why me?" but opted instead for "Why not?"