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Movie review: 'The Sessions'

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Helen Hunt stands there naked – gloriously, completely and unconcernedly nude. She does not make any attempt to cover herself up or turn away, seeking the shadows. She’s just … there. All there.

This brazen, lingering show of flesh is notable because it is so different from our experiences with major stars like Hunt, who has won an Oscar and will surely be nominated for another for “The Sessions.” It’s a movie about sex that shows a whole lot of sex, but isn’t sex-obsessed.

This film grabs you in the heart rather than the loins.

Hunt behaves like this because her character, Cheryl, is a sex therapist hired to help a severely disabled man lose his virginity. Her body is her tool in trade, and she employs it without reservation or obfuscation. And the fact that she is so matter-of-fact about being naked soon renders it as no big deal for the audience, too.

Her client, Mark O’Brien, suffered from polio as a child and has lost all movement below the neck. He spends most of his time encased in an iron lung, and even when free of it must be wheeled around on a gurney by a helper.

This setup may sound like a crazy Hollywood concoction, but Mark and Cheryl and their story are real. A poet and journalist, O’Brien wrote about his experiences seeing a sex surrogate, and was the subject of a 1997 documentary short that won an Academy Award.

John Hawkes gives the performance of his career as Mark. Hawkes spends the entire movie horizontal, his chest heaved upwards in a rictus curve and his face tilted three-quarters upside down. But it’s the rich emotional center of this personification, not the physical tics and contortions, that make it certain he will join Hunt in being honored by the Academy.

Playing a man 15 years younger than himself, Hawkes employs a high voice that’s somewhere between impish and sprightly. Though he’s in his late 30s, Mark is troubled by his virginity and the way his sexual urges have gone unmet. “I need intercourse to prove I’m an adult,” he says.

Here’s another twist: Mark’s confidante is literally his father-confessor. Father Brendan (William H. Macy) is the parish priest at Mark’s church, who befriends him and offers advice – and tacit blessing – on his sexual adventure. The film approaches Mark’s Catholic faith with respect, but takes note of how it may have contributed to his inhibitions.

Soon enough Cheryl and Mark meet, and she begins tutoring him in the ways of physical intimacy. His first experiences are … rather abrupt, shall we say. Thus Mark proves that he is, in fact, quite normal when it comes to initial experiences at sex.

Things move on from there. Cheryl, who likes to keep a professional relationship with her clients, tells Mark up front that their time together will be limited to six sessions. The idea is to give her clients the tools and instruction they need to enjoy healthy sexual lives without them transferring an emotional attachment onto her.

But this time, Cheryl finds it is her who is developing feelings for this awkward, intelligent and funny man. We see a little glimpse of her home life (Adam Arkin plays the husband) and see why she would crave personal intimacy in the same way Mark yearns for the physical side.

Writer/director Ben Lewin, who adapted the screenplay from O’Brien’s own article, has delivered a masterwork. "The Sessions" has a quirky but deep authenticity.

-- Christopher Lloyd is co-founder of TheFilmYap.com.

THE SESSIONS
Stars John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy, Moon Bloodgood, Annika Marks, Adam Arkin, Rhea Perlman, W. Earl Brown, Jennifer Kumiyama. 100 min. Rated R: for language and graphic sexuality/nudity. Score: 3.5 out of four; 4.5 out of five; A- out of A-E.
Last modified: November 29, 2012
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