BY MICHAEL WALTERS
THE CANTAKEROUS CRITIC
The most surprising thing about “The Sessions” is that it exists at all. This is, after all, a true story about a man in an iron lung and his quest to lose his virginity. But somehow this unlikely subject matter has been turned into a genuine Hollywood crowd-pleaser without losing its soul.
John Hawkes plays journalist and poet Mark O’Brien. A bout with polio as a child left his body and muscles too weak to move. Hawkes must sleep in an iron lung to keep breathing through the night, and can only be outside, strapped to a gurney, for a few hours each day.
At the age of 38 he decides he wants to lose his virginity. After a fumbling marriage proposal to his assistant goes awry, a psychiatrist suggests he seek the help of a sex surrogate, played by Helen Hunt. She’s a kind of hands-on sex therapist who helps disabled clients discover their own sexual capabilities. And she becomes one of two confidants Hawkes can share his hopes, dreams and fears with. The other is a local Catholic priest played by William H. Macy. Macy’s no fuddy duddy and offers spiritual advice and guidance through what can be charitably called a spiritual gray area.
This is essentially an actor’s showcase, full of the types of roles for which actors usually get nominated for Academy Awards. Hawkes — so steely and intense in “Winters Bone”– transforms himself here. He can’t chew the scenery because he’s confined to either an iron lung, or a bed, for the entire film. But with his wheezy nasal voice, and subtle sense of humor he’s magnificent to watch. Hunt, too, warms up her chilly personality while maintaining as much professional distance as you can when you’re lying completely naked in bed with someone.
The best part about “The Sessions” is its sense of humor about sex, which helps lighten the mood. It’s sometimes grueling to watch (I found his daily struggle to get in and out of his iron lung to be particularly unsettling), but it comes off as frank and honest rather than stuffy and manipulative.
Writer/Director Ben Lewin and Hawkes offer a candid look at how one man deals with the hand he’s been dealt, and if the movie happens to tug a few heartstrings that never hurt anyone.