Getting laid is a bitch for most people. For San Francisco poet and journalist Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), it’s damn near impossible. Since he contracted polio at age six, O’Brien has spent all but a few hours a day in an iron lung. Now, just two years shy of being a 40-year-old virgin, he decides to see a sex surrogate.
What Hollywood hack makes this stuff up? As it turns out, no one. The Sessions, based on O’Brien’s experiences while living in Berkeley in 1988, is the stuff of real life. If you’re thinking, “How depressing,” snap out of it. Writer-director Ben Lewin, drawing on O’Brien’s essay “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate” (published in 1990), has crafted an exhilarating gift of a movie that’s funny, touching and vital. And Hawkes (Winter’s Bone, Deadwood) does the kind of acting that awards were invented for. Having learned to twist his body, use a mouth stick to dial a phone and type, and suggest the sheer effort it took for O’Brien to simply breathe, Hawkes and his technical virtuosity are astounding. But it’s how Hawkes uses his voice and expressive eyes to reveal the inner Mark that makes his performance a triumph.
Lewin, who also suffered some of the debilitating effects of polio as a child, knows this material from the inside. The sex scenes with O’Brien and surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt) are handled with rare delicacy and blunt, bubbling humor. “Nice shirt,” Cheryl tells the painfully vulnerable Mark, as he lies in bed awaiting her first touch. Hunt plays the role full-out, no nonsense about her nudity or the intricacies of a job she must reconcile with being a wife and mother. Hunt is spectacular in every way, finding just the right balance between tough and tender. William H. Macy also scores mightily as Father Brendan, the priest who helps O’Brien reconcile sex surrogacy with devout Catholicism in ways you won’t see coming. OK, no more spoilers about The Sessions. Just see it. This movie will take a piece out of you.