Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) was left paralyzed from the neck down by the polio he’d contracted as a child. Consequently, he can only breathe with the assistance of an iron lung, although he can use a portable respirator for a few hours at a time.
Nonetheless, the condition has never stopped him from having sexual fantasies, such as about his attractive attendant Amanda (Annika Marks), who quit when he expressed his desire for her. The sexually frustrated 38-year-old decides that the only way he’ll probably ever lose his virginity is by paying a woman to sleep with him.
However, there are the physical challenges presented by quadriplegia and, as a devout Catholic, he has to resolve a major moral issue because Catholicism forbids fornication outside the sanctity of marriage. So Mark decides to consult his parish priest for a special dispensation.
Armed with the surprisingly sympathetic Father Brendan’s (William H. Macy) blessing, Mark retains the services of Cheryl (Helen Hunt), a professional sex surrogate. Over the course of a half-dozen, romantic rendezvous, the sensitive therapist gradually helps her patient conquer his problems.
The Sessions’ subject matter might strike some as salacious, given the film’s frequent nude scenes. But the movie actually is a compassionate tale that explores a variety of themes, including faith, friendship, relationships, and the indomitability of the human spirit.
Written and directed by Ben Lewin, himself a polio victim, the movie is based on Mark O’Brien’s (1950-1999) life story as chronicled in his autobiography How I Became a Human Being: A Disabled Man’s Quest for Independence. The late author was also the subject of Breathing Lessons, a biopic which won an Academy Award in 1997 in the Best Documentary category.
The movie resists the temptation to follow a Hollywood style formula in favor of a realistic plot that Mark undoubtedly would have appreciated. As a journalist and longtime civil rights advocate, he never looked for pity but lobbied for legislation and equality on behalf of the handicapped.
Co-stars John Hawkes and Helen Hunt generate an endearing chemistry and turn in virtuoso performances that deserve serious Oscar consideration.
Excellent (****). Rated R for graphic sexuality, nudity, and frank dialogue. Running time: 95 minutes. Distributor: Fox Searchlight.