America’s Puritanical origins mean that “sweetly sexual” may sound oxymoronic, but that phrase absolutely defines The Sessions, the softest and kindest movie to ever feature a star of Mad About You buck nekkid. Although nudity being “integral to the role” is a con that lecherous producers love to peddle to starlets drowning in Hollywood’s misogynistic subculture, this is a film legitimately predicated on preaching a comfort with physical human intimacy and determined to dispel shame. Turns out, nudity isn’t inherently exploitive; go figure.
Based on the real experiences of Mark O’Brien, a man immobilized due to polio at a young age, The Sessions is first and foremost John Hawkes’ declaration he’s had it with background roles and is ready to play with the big boys. Had he picked any year in which Daniel Day-Lewis did not play Abraham Lincoln, which is literally all of the other years, he’d be a shoo-in for the Best Actor Oscar, as this is the type of role the Academy drools over. His co-star, Helen Hunt, is likely to be more fortunate, as Oscar has a sweet tooth for “hookers with a heart of gold,” and “sex surrogate” is close enough.
Hunt plays Cheryl, a woman whose job involves sexually interacting with the disabled in the hopes of enabling them to engage in such behavior in their future relationships. To minimize emotional issues, a maximum of six sessions are allowed, no matter what. The “what,” as you’d expect, involves deeper feelings Cheryl and Mark develop, which isn’t to say their relationship is stale rom-com cheese. Far from it; the sophisticated physical and emotional entanglement between the two is perhaps the year’s best.
Most of the film is told in quasi-flashback style, with Mark confessing to Father Brendan (William H. Macy), the kind of Catholic priest who smokes cigarettes, drinks beer and tells Mark that Jesus would look the other way on someone like him paying a woman to “get biblical.” Writer/director Ben Lewin, whose last directing experience was almost a decade ago with an episode of TV’s Touched by an Angel, bravely moves into a very, very different type of touching. Without making sex sound overly medical and sterile or decadent and depraved, which are normally the options, Lewin uses intercourse as an exploration of the self and of love.
Most surprisingly, the film resists the urge to cash in its melodramatic elements for a cheap payday, choosing instead to thoughtfully ruminate on what makes a life complete. So what keeps The Sessions from the upper echelon of films in one of cinema’s best years on record? A combination of its somewhat-too-casual approach and its aesthetic confinements. The acting shines, but everything looks like, well, an episode of TV’s Touched by an Angel. Then there’s the fact that there is a one-note theme harped on for the film’s duration; even if that note is pitch perfect, there’s a reason we prefer more in our melodies.
The Sessions is a triumph for a subdued Hawkes and a brave Hunt, who confidently uses her nude body as an acting instrument to help reinforce her character’s belief that sexuality need not be dirty. To walk out of a movie with a man largely confined to an iron lung feeling cheerful and liberated is a pretty impressive cinematic session.
—This review was first published in The Reader of Omaha, Neb.