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The Sessions

“Am I sharing too much, Father?” Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) asks his priest after a monologue on sexual technique that, from anyone else, would certainly qualify as TMI. Still, it’s hard to hold the rush of information against him. Stricken by polio as a child, O’Brien was crippled so severely that he spent most of the rest of his life (he died in 1999) on his back, usually confined to an iron lung. That he lost his virginity at the age of 38 was due to the aid of a sexual surrogate named Cheryl Cohen Green, who was willing to take him on as a client.

Adapted from a magazine article O’Brien wrote about his experience by Australian writer-director Ben Lewin (himself afflicted by polio at a young age), The Sessions lacks the maudlin tone you might expect from a movie about a character so physically compromised. There’s a great deal of humor, though it serves less to provoke guffaws than to make us comfortable with O’Brien. Hawkes, who was so memorable as a backwoods meth addict in Winter’s Bone, gives a winning performance despite the fact that he is clearly more able-bodied than the character he is playing: His perpetually recumbent posture also prevents us from seeing his face in a direct way. As his sexual guide, Helen Hunt is as exposed as he is hidden: I doubt that being completely naked on camera was as comfortable as she makes it appear.

They are strong performances in a film that doesn’t really provoke much of a reaction. No one is likely to argue that the disabled should be allowed and encouraged to find sexual gratification. Lewin’s script is less forthright in dealing with the inevitable issue of emotional entanglement. We know that Green, who has experience in her field, recognizes this problem going in, and we know that she lies to O’Brien in at least one major way to spare his feelings, so it’s hard to know how to take the implication of her emotional responses.

The Sessions proceeds in short, punchy segments, and features William H. Macy as O’Brien’s priest, a character no more believable than the average sitcom sidekick but just as likeable. It will inevitably be talked up for Oscar consideration, which is unfortunate: not that it’s undeserving, but because it will lead you to expect more than this minor feel-good film delivers.

Watch the trailer for The Sessions

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