The first sentence in most synopses of ”The Sessions” will be enough to put you off – ‘a polio-afflicted man…’ It’s the kind of movie you’ll feel like you should see but don’t really want to and will probably endure rather than enjoy. It indeed – as some members of the cast have joked – looks like a ‘disease of the week’ movie.
Don’t be fooled. You probably won’t see many movies this year that are funnier, sexier and more infused with warmth and spirit. Based on an article by polio victim Mark O’Brien, it tells the story of a very unusual relationship. O’Brien (John Hawkes, creepy in ”Martha Marcy May Marlene” but always high quality and acting better and harder here than plenty of performers who have full use of their bodies) is a self-effacing man rendered immobile from a bout of childhood polio. He spends most of his life in an iron lung but ventures outdoors for a few hours a day thanks to various carers.
As a man in his late 30s, one of the things Mark wants more than anything is to lose his virginity like a normal person. With the help of one of his latest carers, the no-nonsense Vera (Moon Bloodgood), he finds and contacts professional sex surrogate Cheryl, played by a vivacious Helen Hunt (and yes, they do exist) to accomplish the deed.
It sounds woefully cheap and trite to say Mark and Cheryl affect each other in ways neither can imagine, a description that doesn’t nearly do justice to the laughter and affection the pair find in each other.
Hawkes plays the hero as a charming, funny guy with more verve in the single blink of an eye than many people manage with fully functioning bodies, but he doesn’t forget to make him a real person trapped in Mark’s skin – lesser films (and actors) would portray him with the personality of a superhero, but Hawkes gives him all awkwardness, self-depreciating nerves and uncertainly of any kid in their first sexual experience.
Hunt is not only absolutely gorgeous but completely unashamed as the emotionally bountiful Cheryl, appearing completely and full-frontally nude more than once.
The story is deceptively simple, and even minor characters like Mark’s priest confidante (William H Macy) are fully fleshed out. You’ll never believe a movie featuring a protagonist with a terrible disease can be not only beautiful but so much fun.