Disability biopics, especially the kind that bring audiences to their feet at Sundance, rarely have anywhere to carry us but on a linear journey from pity via empathy to tearful uplift.
The Sessions, a fact-based drama by writer-director Ben Lewin about a polio-stricken man in search of love and sex, goes that route, too, but the movie replaces the obligatory long face with a buoyantly irreverent spirit and a sexual candor rare on American screens. Lewin, who was disabled by polio himself as a child, brings a wicked wit and a keen eye for detail to his adaptation of an article by Berkeley writer and poet Mark O'Brien about his encounter with a sex surrogate.
O'Brien, paralyzed from the neck down since childhood, is played by John Hawkes, an actor of elastic range whose gaunt mug you may recall from his turns as a thuggish crystal-meth addict in Winter's Bone and a seductive cult leader in last year's Martha Marcy May Marlene. Hawkes hasn't channeled his sweet side since he played Miranda July's love interest in her 2005 film Me and You and Everyone We Know. Here he brings off something trickier — a paraplegic romantic lead with a helium voice, bags of self-deprecating charm and a long-standing desire to get laid.
It's likely that life was pretty dark for the real Mark O'Brien, who wrote of his years of loneliness and self-hatred. Lewin doesn't skip over Mark's sadness or his anger at being so physically helpless, but he puts the spotlight on his gallows humor and insistence on his rights. Mark is looking for love, but he's also looking for sex; at going on 40 years old, he's literally itching to be relieved of his virginity.
Hawkes plays him as both a sensitive poet and a big flirt; he's quite the babe magnet in a platonic way. More than one pretty caregiver comes to adore him, including a fetching Moon Bloodgood in sensible T-shirt and jeans. And Lewin has thrown in a fictional wry priest, played by William H. Macy, to be his comic-relief confidante.
Platonic won't do it for Mark, though, and soon a writing assignment on sex and disability brings him to Cheryl (Helen Hunt), a certified sex surrogate whose job it is to prepare him for future romance by guiding him to full intercourse. Yes, Cheryl is in an affectionate but emotionally limited marriage to one of those amiable hippie holdovers (played by Adam Arkin, plus tattoos) who hung in through the 1980s in Berkeley. Yes, in flagrant violation of her professional rules, Cheryl and Mark fall in love. And yes, there's also the requisite message about where you end up in life being 10 percent circumstance and 90 percent attitude.
Beyond that, though, The Sessions doesn't go exactly where you think it's going. For one thing, it's unusual to see so much nude sex, and so much frank talk about sex, in any American mainstream movie, let alone between a middle-aged man in an iron lung and a long-married woman who is neither a prostitute nor his lover.
I've always thought of Helen Hunt as a vivacious television comedian (Mad About You) who somehow turns into a log of wood on the big screen (A Good Woman). In The Sessions, Hunt combines those traits to impressive use as Cheryl, a self-described sex professional who must preserve empathy and distance while stripping naked and sitting astride a man whose muscles must be coaxed into action. Imagine the pressure if repeat takes were needed.
Lewin, who also spent some time in an iron lung, directs these scenes with sensitivity, but also with refreshing candor about the awkwardness of achieving instant physical intimacy with someone you've just met — someone who for good measure can't move most of his body. The dialogue Lewin has written for Mark and Cheryl is wistful here, light and playful there without disclaiming punchlines, and the two segue into a deeper bond mostly without benefit of a cajoling score to cue our responses.
We don't need to know whether all or any of this really happened. Nor do I believe that Lewin is trying to say something glib about sex never being just about sex. Instead, he has used some raw material to tell a story about all kinds of nakedness — and about how the vulnerability that goes with it can level an emotional playing field, release two people from their bottled-up loneliness, and float one of them, at least, into a fuller life. For once in an American movie, the uplift feels earned. (Recommended)