Rated R for pervasive sexual content, including frequent nudity and frank dialogue.
"The Sessions" is a comedy-drama based on the true story of a paralyzed poet's quest to perform sexual intercourse with a paid "sex surrogate."
Wait! Don't go! Let me add that "The Sessions," for better or worse, is the opposite of lurid.
The story of poet Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes) is presented as an inspirational, even crowd-pleasing celebration of the triumph of intellect and spirit over physical disability, in the manner of such fact-based predecessors as "My Left Foot," with Daniel Day-Lewis as Irish writer Christy Brown, and "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," with Mathieu Amalric as French journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby.
Sense a pattern here? Unsurprisingly, the severely disabled are more likely to inspire movies when they've already dramatized their stories through their writing.
For filmmakers, such memoirs provide a guide to the protagonist's feelings, as well as ready-to-pluck dialogue and narration for an immobile hero who will be defined by words rather than by gesture and movement. A memoir also establishes a precedent: It gives permission, so to speak, to anyone who similarly wants to transform the hard material of a disabled person's life into the stuff of art and, yes, entertainment.
"Inspirational"? "Crowd-pleasing"? For some moviegoers, those words are as discouraging as "sex surrogate."
But cynics as well as optimists should enjoy "The Sessions," which seems almost certain to earn Hawkes a Best Actor Oscar nomination, alongside Joaquin Phoenix ("The Master"), Daniel Day-Lewis ("Lincoln"), Denzel Washington ("Flight") and some other dude (maybe Anthony Hopkins for the upcoming "Hitchcock"?). Frequently fully nude co-star Helen Hunt also seems certain to score an Academy Award nomination for her work as real-life sex therapist Cheryl Cohen Greene.
"The Sessions" opens with clips from a vintage TV news story about the poet, shot when O'Brien was seeking a degree at the University of California, Berkeley, and propelling himself awkwardly about campus with the chin-operated controls of a motorized trundle bed.
A newscaster delivers what we understand to be the movie's theme: "Mark O'Brien teaches us that courage and perseverance overcome obstacles."
Jump to 1988, where the witty, articulate, 38-year-old O'Brien — essentially paralyzed from the neck down, except for his functional and sensitive sex organ — is a writer and poet in Berkeley, cared for by attendants who dress and feed and clean him.
As O'Brien, Hawkes spends the entire film twisted and stretched out on his back, on a bed or gurney or inside an iron lung.
He holds his head to the right, at an awkward downward angle. He sounds like a congested Jay Baruchel, and he entirely lacks the menace that previously was his signature in such less charming films as "Winter's Bone" and "Martha Marcy May Marlene."
Paralyzed since childhood due to polio, O'Brien admits he often feels like "dried-up bubblegum stuck on the underside of existence." A Catholic who believes in a God with "a wicked sense of humor," O'Brien says he is tortured by "ecstasies of despair," brought on by thoughts of women. As he confesses to the longhaired and nonplussed new parish priest (a deadpan William H. Macy): "My penis speaks to me, Father ..."
A believable series of circumstances persuade O'Brien to hire a sex therapist or "surrogate" so he can lose his virginity before his "use-by date." As played by an unabashed Hunt, the married Greene is good-natured and no-nonsense — and completely uninhibited as she initiates a series of "body awareness exercises" on the first of what she says will be a maximum of six sex-therapy sessions with O'Brien.
For its first hour, "The Sessions" works wonderfully as a comedy about the absurdity of the human condition (think Woody Allen in an iron lung), thanks in large part to a cast that plays the potentially uncomfortable material entirely straight. (Actress Moon Bloodgood is a standout as O'Brien's severe Chinese assistant, a stereotypically inscrutable young woman in Mr. Moto glasses and tight braid who registers only the barest signs of affectionate amusement at her boss' predicament.)
The sex material is frank and funny (intercourse, according to O'Brien's male caregiver, is "overrated but necessary"), and the matter-of-fact approach to the sex therapy is revealing in more ways than one.
Unfortunately, like his story's hero, writer-director Ben Lewin — working from O'Brien's 1990 magazine article, "On Seeing a Sex Surrogate" — is "susceptible to transference": He can't let a good time just be a good time.
The movie becomes poignant to a fault during its final act, presenting O'Brien as a brave, funny, unselfish romantic-fantasy dream hero for disappointed, weary or jaded older female moviegoers. O'Brien is an ideal partner: eternally grateful for even the smallest womanly attention, yet undemanding and literally unable to force himself on anyone. Forget the bedroom: His sensitive nature alone is enough to bring smart, sexy women to tears. Rather than present hard truths, the film ultimately idealizes and sanitizes O'Brien; it's a comforting portrait of an unthreatening yet irresistible movie hero.
"The Sessions" is at the Malco Ridgeway Four.