Considering the current movie landscape is tilted so heavily in favor of action blockbusters and movies based on comic books, we’re lucky to also have a wealth of indies, or semi-indies, that are written and made with some thought and care. But even among those, “The Sessions” – about a 38-year-old man who sets out to lose his virginity, despite the fact that he’s mostly confined to an iron lung – is unusual. The picture is efficient and assured, as if it were designed to be your average crowd-pleaser, yet there's also reassuringly laid-back about it. Writer-director Ben Lewin approaches the subject matter as if it were no big deal, and that’s what makes the picture so striking. It’s not every day you see bold full-frontal middle-aged female nudity treated so matter-of-factly, and at the same time – almost paradoxically – made to seem so mysteriously powerful.
Seeing a woman naked means a hell of a lot to Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), a Berkeley poet and journalist who, after surviving polio as a child, has spent almost all of his life horizontally – and not in the good way. (O’Brien was a real person – he died in 1999 at age 49 -- and “The Sessions” is based on a 1990 article he wrote called “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate.”) Mark is a charmer, a clever guy who’s surprisingly open about his feelings; he’s able to have an erection; and he also, unsurprisingly, craves the companionship of women.
Mark needs professional caretakers through much of the day and evening, and after doing a bit of soul searching, he fires a grumpy attendant he doesn’t really like and hires a sweet young woman (Annika Marks) who seems to genuinely care for him – though not in that way, a realization that leaves him crushed. And so after seeking the counsel of his parish priest (William H. Macy, in a performance so deeply humane it could make even the most resolutely agnostic sheep return to the flock), Mark enlists the aid a sex surrogate, a professional who might be able to help him overcome some of his anxieties about sex, many of which are tethered to his feelings about his twisted and somewhat immobile body.
The woman he hires is Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt), a warm but crisply professional woman who at first isn’t quite sure how to approach Mark’s problems – she has never before worked with a disabled patient. But over the course of just a few sessions, she and Mark forge a relationship that is, for both parties, half businesslike and half life-changing.
This is either a delicate subject or an unapologetically vital one, and the key to “The Sessions” is that Lewin treats it as the latter. Lewin has been making movies for years (the 1988 Australian feature “Georgia,” starring Judy Davis; the 1994 romantic comedy “Paperback Romance,” with Anthony LaPaglia) and has directed frequently for television. (He also, incidentally, had polio himself as a child.)
But “The Sessions” has a youthful aura about it, maybe because it’s the kind of story an older person might dismiss as being too conventional, too done-to-death, although it’s not. And Lewin steers clear of any special pleading in the way he guides his actors. This is a superb ensemble – even the actors in the smallest roles shine, particularly Moon Bloodgood as Mark’s most intimidating – and perhaps most sympathetic -- caretaker. Hawkes brings a great deal of dryness to his performance. He leaves no room for self-pity, but he also recognizes the seemingly insurmountable anthill battles that a guy like Mark has to fight every day. When Mark tries to explain to Macy’s Father Brendan why he wants to fire that grouchy attendant, he describes the expression on her face as “that ‘you need me more than I need you’ look.” There’s a measure of disdain in his voice but also a twinge of sadness; the reality is that he does need a great deal of help, and day in, day out, there’s no forgetting it.
Hawkes and Hunt are wonderful together: To call them “natural” isn’t quite right – it’s their awkwardness that makes their scenes tick. Hunt has always been a marvelous, down-to-earth comic actress, but now that she’s reached middle age, there’s something simultaneously softer and more flinty about her. Amid a raft of “older” actresses who are nervous about looking their age, Hunt’s unselfconsciousness stands out, particularly in her nude scenes: When she strips down for Mark, for the first time showing him what she’s got, the vision of her is a little shocking for us, too. It’s not that she doesn’t look great; it’s just that she’s not buffed, polished or airbrushed to perfection. She looks like a real person, and that’s a rarity even in moderately small-budget pictures. “The Sessions” may be about a guy whose circumstances are extraordinary. But the movie around him is ordinary in the best way, and that’s what makes all the difference.