The shocker about "The Sessions," starring Helen Hunt and John Hawkes, is not the full-frontal nudity, or its provocative story of a sex surrogate who helps a 38-year-old in an iron lung lose his virginity. It's not even the priest's blessing allowing the out-of-wedlock sex acts.
Rather, it's the humanistic way in which "The Sessions" deals with what sex at its best can be — emotional, spiritual, physical, pleasurable, soul-satisfying, life-affirming.
In a country that embraces cinematic violence with such ease but blushingly prefers to keep sex in the shadows or under the sheets, the grown-up approach of "The Sessions" is rare.
PHOTOS: Films rated NC-17
The film is about the late poet and journalist Mark O'Brien, who contracted polio at age 6 and spent the rest of his 49 years in an iron lung. His spine was locked in a tortured curve, his head barely able to move. The few hours a day he spent freed from the machine by a portable respirator were always a risk. Yet he wrote, lived, laughed and loved in the face of it all.
For all the frustrations in his life — first captured on screen in Jessica Yu's excellent 1996 Oscar-winning documentary short "Breathing Lessons" — the one that began to obsess O'Brien at a certain point in life was his desire to experience sex. This particular journey is what "The Sessions" concentrates on. Outside of marriage, which did not seem in the offing, the idea of sex for O'Brien (Hawkes) ran counter to his Catholic faith, thus the priest (William H. Macy).
The physical challenges were significant, but living in progressive Berkeley, there were viable options — specifically, therapy-based treatment to assist the disabled with sexual issues. O'Brien chronicled his surrogacy experience with such humor and intellect that empathy, not pity prevailed.
That sensibility buoys writer-director Ben Lewin's screenplay as well. There are a lot of honest laughs, most found in the ironies that come with O'Brien's situation, while very little melodrama slips in. It makes for a strange sort of feel-good, feel-bad movie.
Perhaps the lack of mush comes from the director's own experiences with polio as a child, the iron lung he doesn't remember, the crutches he uses to this day. It has clearly shaped Lewin's work, though quite differently in "The Sessions" than his 1994 romantic comedy "Paperback Romance." In that film, the heroine tries to hide a leg paralyzed by polio from her new beau.
In "The Sessions," O'Brien's disability and desires are fully exposed. Hawkes' body, twisted and still, his voice squeezed by the weak muscles, mirror, don't mimic, O'Brien's difficult reality. Because his character's wry cynicism keeps things light, it makes for a memorable change from the darker roles — "Winter's Bone" and "Martha Marcy May Marlene" most notably — that had come to define the actor.
By the time we meet O'Brien he has been living on his own for years. Caregivers, usually Berkeley students, come in during the day to help with the necessities — bathing and the rest. At night he's on his own. Though he's learned to manipulate a stick with his mouth to dial the phone or type on a computer, the unexpected — from the maddening itch he can't scratch to getting around during a power blackout — keeps his very existence as much up to fate as to the machine that breathes for him.
A crush on one of his caregivers, a pretty student named Amanda (Annika Marks), is what impels O'Brien to seriously consider the sex question. One of his first stops is Father Brendan. Their philosophical — and practical — exchanges are the stuff of situation comedy in the most literal sense. O'Brien, his body prone on a portable hospital at the front of the sanctuary, spends a lot of time confessing his sexual longings in great detail where praying parishioners can't help but overhear.
The stakes rise, and the tone of the film shifts, when O'Brien settles his conscience and locates a sex surrogate named Cheryl (Hunt). With that, the steady march toward his first sexual experience gets underway. Between the logistics and emotions, the film turns into a cliffhanger; success is not a guarantee. What might seem too intimate, too uncomfortable — particularly the first time Cheryl strips down — is made easier in part because of the real way sex surrogates work. They are not prostitutes, as Cheryl explains in their first encounter.
The challenge for Hunt is to channel Cheryl's pragmatism about what is going to happen. Somehow she makes it possible to relax and just go with the story. Her performance is a brave one. Hunt truly does turn herself and her body into an instrument for healing. It is the best work the actress has done since her Oscar turn in 1997's "As Good as It Gets."
Lit very brightly and shot forthrightly by Lewin and director of photography Geoffrey Simpson, nothing about "The Sessions" is seedy. If anything, it has a bit of a clinical feel. There are rules to their engagements, including a limited number of sessions to reduce the chance for any emotional entanglement, but feelings begin to complicate things nevertheless.
Ultimately, "The Sessions" is about a decent, disarming, disabled man on a quest to lose his virginity; nothing more profound is afoot. For me it was story enough, moving enough.
MPAA rating: R for strong sexuality including graphic nudity and frank dialogue
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Playing: At ArcLight Hollywood; Landmark Theatre, West Los Angeles