An entertaining parlor game to play after you’ve seen “The Sessions” — after you’ve dried your eyes and let the aura of profound tenderness dissipate — is to imagine the many ways the film could have gone wrong. A man in an iron lung hires a sex surrogate to help him lose his virginity? It sounds like a bad joke or a worse “Saturday Night Live” sketch. At the very least, such a story would have to steer equally clear of exploitation and sentimentality, resisting both the urge to gawk and the path of easy pity. One way lies sleaziness, the other saccharine, and either would sink this project.
Anyway, all movies are manipulative — that’s their pleasure, when done right — and “The Sessions” is no exception. But the achievement of this simply told, exceptionally fine film is the clarity with which it portrays the drama of a good soul in an inert body. There was a real Mark O’Brien — a Boston-born poet and journalist who was the subject of a 1996 Oscar-winning documentary short (“Breathing Lessons”) — and the film is derived from an article he wrote for a San Francisco newspaper. By moving in close and listening to the spaces between the words, the movie explores a yearning — for love, for connection, for experience — that’s the essence of the human journey.
John Hawkes plays the lead role, and if you know the actor from his fearsome hillbilly in “Winter’s Bone” or as the murderous cult leader in “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” prepare yourself for a shock. His Mark is shy yet witty, wry but lyrical. Paralyzed since childhood after a bout of polio destroyed his muscles, he lives most of his life in an iron lung that controls his breathing. Mark can spend up to four hours outside the device with the help of a portable respirator, but even then he is reliant on the kindness of paid strangers to clothe and feed him.
He has a successful life by any measure — a degree from Berkeley, a career as a writer who specializes in issues of the disabled. Mark writes with a pencil in his mouth, typing his articles letter by letter, and another actor might emphasize the sweat and struggle of the task. Hawkes plays it with the unfussy air of a man who likes to work and who’s happy to reach out to the world however he can.
But will the world reach back? After Mark falls for one of his caregivers (Annika Marks) and is gently spurned, he starts listening to what his body is telling him. A lifelong Catholic, he carries the usual load of self-abnegation and guilt. In his 40s, he’s also aware that he’s “approaching his use-by date.” A consultation with the parish priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy, doing a superb semi-comic spin on the hip prelate archetype), gets him a pass, more or less. No one’s working in familiar territory here.
Enter Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt), a licensed sex surrogate whose six sessions with Mark will lead from body awareness techniques — the very phrase sends the hero into a panic — to intercourse. The dialogue gets briefly cluttered as Cheryl has to explain why she’s not a prostitute for the denser and more judgmental members of the audience, and Hunt’s come-and-go Boston accent (Cheryl’s from Salem) hardly helps.
Still, while a lot of talk will be about Hunt’s unabashed full-frontal nudity in the therapy scenes, this isn’t a “brave” performance but simply a very good one. “The Sessions” respects Cheryl’s professionalism even as it shows how her relationship with Mark affects her emotionally. It isn’t a love story — Cheryl is married, to a genial bear of a househusband played by Adam Arkin — but neither is it not a love story. It’s about an imprisoned man finding physical expression and how that physicality is his right. Sex in “The Sessions” is a sacrament and a necessity, a joke and a joy, a big pain and a big part of the point. One of the most heartbreaking scenes flies by so fast you might miss it, when the surrogate asks Mark if he’d like to touch her and he replies, “Sure . . .” in a tiny voice that conveys the terror and bliss — the sheer risk — of connecting with someone outside your own skin.
The writer-director, Ben Lewin, isn’t much of a stylist, and the film has the stolid, unadorned look of a TV movie. That actually helps, since a more cinematic approach might tip the film into melodrama. The settings are apartments and homes and, in a series of scenes that start amusingly and slide into deeper waters, a motel room. The dialogue gets clinical at times, but we’re kept aware of the larger mystery. Mark’s a poet, and his verse graces the soundtrack and infuses every one of the prosaic camera shots. The supporting performances — Macy, Arkin, Moon Bloodgood as an efficient but deeply sympathetic caregiver — glow with the hero’s reflected light.
And Hawkes, you should forgive the expression, doesn’t make a false move. His is a performance that could be calculated for maximum awards bling and will probably net some, and it’s a challenge on the visual level alone: Mark is almost always shot in close-up and horizontally, his face twisting toward the heavens of the upper frame-line. Yet the character’s soft-spoken sincerity can disarm even cynical viewers predisposed to distrust Oscar-season dramas about the disabled. Mark doesn’t rage at the universe like Christy Brown or Ron Kovic. He just wants what the rest of us have — sex is only part of it — and he knows there’s no reason on earth or up above that he should be denied.
“The Sessions” flirts with pathos but mostly stays true to its low-key honesty; only Marco Beltrami’s score tries to sneak in and tug our heartstrings from time to time. By the final scenes, all that restraint may have you in a soggy heap on the theater floor, just as Cheryl has a terrible moment in her car where her defenses finally give way. But the great grace of this movie isn’t that we’re crying for all that Mark O’Brien missed out on in life. We’re crying for everything he had.