Certain distracting, sound bite–style features of The Sessions tend to precede its reputation and ill-serve the dignity and expressive power of the work. For one, there is the should-be nonsubject of frank nudity, and in an artistic film fueled by calmly masterful performances. More interestingly, though, is the sexy and sacred film’s rare-to-find triangular dynamics, in which carnality (and its sometimes twin, love), religiosity, and intellectual curiosity do a three-way dance in the remarkable true life–based tale, beautifully brought to the screen by writer/director Ben Lewin.
Our virgin protagonist Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), a real-life poet/author based in Berkeley in the ’80s, forced by polio-inflicted paralysis to spend his life lying down and “living in my head,” decides to delve into his own sexuality with a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt). All the while, he consults with, confesses, and gives blow-by-blow accounts of his “sessions” to his priest (a shaggy-haired William H. Macy), who offers an odd blessing at the beginning of the project, alleviating O’Brien’s guilt in advance: “I think (God) would give you a pass on this one.”
Hawkes, previously best known for his tough-skinned performance as a meth-entrenched character in Winter’s Bone, pulls off some stunning feats of acting in the central role, one that requires him to lay down on the job and let his horizontally pitched head do the dramatic work. Hunt’s accomplishments move in other directions, as she balances a therapist’s detachment with sexual healing and the unexpected anointment of the fairy dust of love, partly inspired by his endearing poem to her. She is Mark’s mentor in matters of the libido and also the heart, and when he asks her, “What comes after poems and sex?” she replies, “After poetry and sex comes nothing … or everything.”
Not quite like any other film — and certainly one of the best of 2012 — The Sessions is one of those films that makes a subtle, deep impact and lingers in the memory. It achieves a kind of aching tenderness and poignancy with its story, building a full and complete world within the narrow dimensions of a physically immobile man’s expansive heart and imagination. He’s got sex on the brain, sure, but also God and earthly love by his unique terms.