Afflicted with polio from a young age, Berkeley scholar and poet/journalist Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes) spent most of his life in an iron lung, which entombed him like a big metal coffin for the barely living. As he feels the weight of his own mortality weighing down on him, not unlike the pressurized air in the iron lung, he yearns to finally know carnal pleasure. But finding a willing partner has proven a challenge. Even his writterly way with words and decent character unable to overshadow his bodily disorder. With few alternatives, he hires sex therapist Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt) – an educated professional who'll make you understand that she's no prostitute – to help Mark reconnect with his bodily sensations and at long last put a notch on his proverbial bedpost.
And so Ben Lewin's The Sessions takes us on Mark's mission to discover the joy of sex, or rather, as it turns out, the joy of the journey that is love. Despite Cheryl's insistence that the relationship between her and Mark must remain strictly a professional one, Mark inevitably develops feelings for his therapist. Even though she can't reciprocate, we can tell that she wishes she could, as the sex surrogacy sessions they embark upon together become liberating for both of them. He finds release from the confines of his own crippled person, and she finds escape from her not entirely satisfying home life.
One of the key strengths of Lewin's quaintly tidy (but nevertheless excellent) screenplay and of his direction is that it treats sex with both frankness and a playful sense of humour. In his movie, nothing is taboo when a fully nude Helen Hunt clinically guides an equally nude John Hawkes through achieving full penetration, but he reassures us that it's okay to laugh about it as well. His sensitive, drama-lite approach allows the film to breeze by (at a brisk 94 minutes), only slightly diminishing some of the dramatic power it could have had.
His two leads are essential in delivering the subtle emotional beats laid out on the page. Hawkes, in particular, is brilliant, evoking the understated tragedy of a great mind trapped inside his own body. He brings an endearing wit but naive vulnerability to O'Brien, whose first class education couldn't possibly have prepared him for the nervous fear and rapturous ecstasy that his sexual exploration would bring. Hunt also shines in a difficult role that requires complete comfort in her own skin. The supporting players, who include William H. Macy as Mark's open-minded priest, are finely tuned to the film's gentle timbre.
***1/2 out of ****