The sexually frank dramedy The Sessions introduces Mark O'Brien with video footage from the 1980s that follows the disabled writer as he navigates the streets of Berkeley on a self-propelled gurney. The image of whimsical independence counters the difficult circumstances of O'Brien's life: A childhood bout of polio left him paralyzed from the neck down. Confined to a torpedo-shaped iron lung for most of his days, Mark became a poet and journalist. The Sessions partly draws from his 1990 article "On Seeing a Sex Surrogate."
Winter's Bone's John Hawkes gives a charming, elfin performance as Mark, who speaks with a Truman Capote lilt and greets the world with a bemused, winded smile that often belies his internal turmoil. Having had no sexual experiences beyond chaste kisses and involuntary erections during sponge baths, the 38-year-old Mark resolves to lose his virginity. He hires sexual surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt), a married mom with a Massachusetts accent and strict rules about her profession, which include limiting their sessions to six to keep from getting emotionally attached.
Once the film gets Cheryl and Mark in bed together for "body awareness exercises," The Sessions becomes warm and laid-back. Hunt appears frequently in the buff (showing off a body worthy of a younger woman), and her character's professional approach to nudity keeps the sex scenes from feeling raunchy or gratuitous. Despite the therapeutic rationale for the couple's trysts, The Sessions examines sex as an expression of tenderness, when it usually comes across as the opposite on your average explicit HBO drama. It seems perfectly natural that the pair would develop feelings for each other in defiance of Cheryl's rules, creating dilemmas for each of them.
Australian-American writer/director Ben Lewin himself suffered from a debilitating case of polio, which perhaps motivated him to create an unusually candid film about the sex lives of disabled people. He cultivates genuine chemistry between Mark and Cheryl but outside the boudoir, the film relies on thin, heavy-handed comedy. The camerawork and editing emphasize the most obvious reactions, and the script delivers such clunky lines as "Mark, I'm just a humble sex therapist, but ..."
To its credit, The Sessions is as matter-of-fact about religious faith as it is about getting it on. Mark is a devout Catholic and Cheryl is in the process of converting to Judaism (although her family subplots get a short shrift). The film makes a running joke about Mark confessing his sexual frustrations to his increasingly uncomfortable local priest (William H. Macy), but the approach provides little information we don't already know and The Sessions' attitudes about religion seldom go beyond the superficial jokey level.
The Sessions comes across as a nice, well-intentioned little story that fails to live up to its post-Sundance hype but may earn Oscar nominations for Hawkes and Hunt. Compared to such rich, complex biopics about disabled people as My Left Foot or The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, however, the film feels more like a TV movie-of-the-week, only with a lot more skin.