The Sessions takes several sensitive topics and makes them poignant, funny and natural. And it also showcases two brave performances from two actors who lay bare not only their bodies, but also their rawest emotions.
Ben Lewin wrote and directed The Sessions, taking autobiographical elements from the life and writings of Mark O’Brien. John Hawkes plays O’Brien, who’s trapped in an iron lung for all but a few hours a day. To his credit, Hawkes persuasively embraces his character, giving him a full presence despite the obvious physical limitations.
Lewin never makes Mark an object of pity, nor does he turn his film into an overwrought television drama. Instead, Mark is a conflicted 38-year-old male. He has never experienced physical intimacy of any sort but wants to. Lewin depicts Mark as a regular guy with all requisite male needs and preoccupations. He just happens to be immobilized.
Mark has several of the title sessions with an open-minded priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy), and he also talks with other counselors. Finally, Mark enlists the services of “sexual therapist” Cheryl (Helen Hunt).
In their sessions, which complement Mark’s spiritual ones, Cheryl explains the difference between her profession and prostitution. But the distinction never becomes clear until she begins her work. And then it does.
Mark has an erratic and in some places heightened sense of touch, a condition that makes him jumpy, while making Cheryl’s job seem impossible. But Cheryl is really a pro — meant in the best possible way.
She teaches Mark not only about his own body but about the regular mating habits of couples, something unfamiliar, and surprising, to him.
Although Mark cannot move on his own, the director never lets The Sessions become static. Instead, Mark moves around Berkeley, Calif., thanks to a series of caretakers and friends.
In the interim, Lewin provides full portraits of both Mark and Cheryl, letting us understand how they have both become the people they are. And both prove worth getting to know.
Rated R, 95 minutes.
Opens Friday at the Angelika Plano and the Magnolia in Dallas.