At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, I would like to nominate John Hawkes and Helen Hunt in "The Sessions" as the movie couple of the year. Their extraordinary connection while re-enacting the true story of a disabled, virginal 38-year-old writer and his sexual surrogate infuses the movie, written and directed by Ben Lewin, with a piercing depth of humanity and no small amount of humor.
Hawkes, the brilliant, chameleonic actor lauded for his sinister portrayals of a backwoods meth dealer in "Winter's Bone" and of a Charles Manson-like cult leader in "Martha Marcy May Marlene," plays Mark O'Brien, a poet, writer and journalist who died in 1999 at 49. Hunt portrays Cheryl Cohen Greene, the sex therapist he hires to guide him toward his first experience of intercourse.
Arriving in a culture steeped in titillation, prurience and pornographic imagery, "The Sessions" is a pleasant shock: a touching, profoundly sex-positive film that equates sex with intimacy, tenderness and emotional connection instead of performance, competition and conquest. There are moments between the client and his surrogate that are so intensely personal that your first instinct may be to avert your eyes. But the actors' lighthearted rapport allows you to rejoice unashamedly in their characters' pleasure.
That is not to imply that "The Sessions" is visually more explicit than it need be. During much of the therapy, Hunt is nude. But the camera angles avoid showing genitalia. At the same time, when penetration is achieved, the body language and clinical dialogue clarify exactly what is happening and what is being experienced.
O'Brien has already been the subject of an Oscar-winning documentary short, "Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O'Brien" (1996), directed by Jessica Yu. This new film is largely adapted from O'Brien's article "On Seeing a Sex Surrogate," published in 1990 in the literary magazine The Sun.
The back story: At 6, he contracted polio and lost most of his mobility and muscle coordination, but not his sensation, below the neck. He was forced to rely on artificial respiration for all but a few hours a week. His parents, instead of sending him to a nursing home, cared for him, and he attended the University of California, Berkeley, transporting himself by an electric gurney between the campus and his apartment, where his iron lung was located.
O'Brien, who was 4 feet 7 inches tall and weighed only 60 pounds (Hawkes is 5-foot-10), wrote his poems and articles by holding a stick between his teeth to tap words on a computer and to make telephone calls.
The story is set in Berkeley in 1988. A Roman Catholic, Mark consults with Father Brendan (William H. Macy), a supportive, open-minded priest, before proceeding with therapy.
"I know in my heart that God will give you a free pass on this one go for it," Father Brendan reassures him.
Mark, who is understandably sardonic about his faith, says: "I believe in a God with a sense of humor. I would find it absolutely intolerable not to be to able blame someone for all this."
From the moment Hunt appears, "The Sessions" becomes a different movie on a much higher plane. Cheryl has never worked with someone like Mark, who must remain on his back, his thin, fragile body painfully contorted. This married woman is exploring uncharted territory every bit as much as Mark, and the therapy is a dual journey in discovery. Inevitably, she makes mistakes.
Her ground rules are strict the maximum number of sessions is six and she voices them with the firmness of an elementary schoolteacher addressing a class and setting boundaries. But once their sessions begin, she applies herself with intense dedication, asking how this or that feels.
Mark, who has never been touched this way before, experiences waves of sensation that to his humiliation cause him to ejaculate uncontrollably. Each time Mark disappoints himself, Cheryl remains a reassuring, encouraging coach, and they make progress.
Hawkes is entirely convincing in his portrayal of a man who is by turns vulnerable, wittily self-lacerating, charming and erudite. You can feel how increasingly difficult it is for both partners to follow the rules once they have reached a certain level of intimacy.
The other aspects of the movie, though well executed, are little more than tasteful décor around which the main drama revolves. You won't forget it.
★ ★ ★ 1/2
Cast: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy, Moon Bloodgood, Annika Marks and Rhea Perlman
Director: Ben Lewin
Rated R (Nudity, sexual situations and clinical sexual terminology)